In the midst of the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, many are wondering about the level of smoke taint that may occur in the surviving grapes. I hesitated to write this blog at this time, as I do not want to appear insensitive to the loss the people in those areas are feeling. However, my intention is just to inform, and no doubt people have heard reports of possible smoke taint in the news outlets already. I write this blog with great compassion for those that have lost homes and businesses, and even lives. However, smoke taint is just another issue that winemakers sometimes need to deal with in the cellar, and it can be overcome. I see this blog as being a timely subject and not in any way to discourage enjoying the wines of this vintage from Northern California. If you’ve never heard of smoke taint, this blog will explain the phenomenon and how it affects wine. It really is quite interesting.
Smoke taint affects grapes when wildfire smoke compounds are absorbed into the berries. The more excessive the smoke, the more likely the chances of smoke taint occurring are. Grapes are the most vulnerable during veraison (the last stage of ripeness).
The same compounds that barrels give wine, guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, are the main compounds that give grapes smoke taint. The difference is in the resulting aromas and flavors, which are usually too concentrated to be enjoyable, as opposed to the more subtle effects that barrels give. A wine with smoke taint will have aromas of campfire, ashes, charcoal, smoke, or charred meat---descriptors that can be good in small amounts, but overbearing in large amounts. It may also give a lingering finish similar to having your tongue coated with ash.
Smoke taint can be tested for and treated, however. It is most concentrated in the grape skins, so having berries tested is the best way, however, small amounts can be found in juice, but it’s not an ideal sample source. Once juice is fermented into wine, all you really need to do is smell it to know that it has smoke taint, especially if it has not come into contact with oak yet.
Smoke taint can be largely removed from wine, using specific fining and reverse osmosis methods, or by blending small amounts into unaffected wine, but at the cost of possibly stripping some of the other positive sensory components from the wine. You can also still be left with an ashy aftertaste, as well, although one wine treatment company I found claims to be able to filter that out. It’s important to point out that smoke taint will not hurt you if you drink affected wines, it is just an aesthetic flaw.
At Aristo Wines, our hearts are going out to those affected by the these fires. This is now a state of emergency in California, and being called the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. We support wineries and wines made in Napa and Sonoma, and will continue to support the 2017 vintage. We encourage wine consumers to support it, as well, and we’re confident that these wines will continue to impress the world as much as they always have.