Smoke gets in your wine

An article published on the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s web site (rural section), reports that heavy smoke will affect the taste of grapes hanging on the vine and, in turn, the taste of wine produced from the grapes in question. I imagine the question is highly important for winemakers in a country subject to brush fires and, recently, record droughts.

Contrary to what the news item says, however, the study isn’t quite a first. With the intense forest fire season of 2003, the Okanagan Valley was a great open-air laboratory for smoke-related taints in wine. And lo and behold, this item from 2006 on the UBC web site points out how researchers from the university were aware of this particular problem:

“Certainly the 2003 season with the Okanagan Mountain Park fire provided ample opportunity for additional ‘seasoning’ of the grapes,” says Nigel Eggers, Associate Professor of Chemistry with the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. “Forest fires are known to produce phenols and guaiacols from the burning of lignins in trees, and these chemicals can impart a smokey, burnt smell to nearby fruit.”

I’d also heard anecdotal evidence about smoke “enhancements” at a lunch with Alain Brumont, a couple of years ago, where we were served a bottle of a 2000 vintage cuvée which, he said to us, as a bit of a dare, had a defect. (Bouscassé Vieilles Vignes 2000, I believe, although I have this lingering doubt that it might have been Montus Prestige 2000… anyhow) As we all sniffed our wine, probably all noticing the same thing but waiting for someone to jump in and risk a diagnosis, someone finally said that it smelled pretty smoky. Indeed, confirmed Brumont, the parcel from which this cuvée came was right next to one where the vines had been cut and pulled out, and where the wood and roots had been burned out. The smoke from the slow burning fire had hung around the vineyard with a little morning fog, over a few days, and the ripening grapes next door inherited from an involuntary additive.

Now, the smokiness was noticeable by comparison with the other cuvées. I’m not sure anybody would have rated it a defect otherwise, or even noticed it as an external factor. It wasn’t quite as heavay as forest fire smoke, of course, which may well have restrained the effects sufficiently.

Still, if I was a winemaker, I’m not sure I’d want to experiment with this too much. When you’re playing with fire…

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