In 2020, a series of fires ravaged parts of Northern California and Western Oregon and left much of the West Coast in a fog. This follows major fires over the past three years that have burned nearly 3.8 million acres in California alone. Meanwhile, Australia was hit by devastating fires in 2019 and 2020, affecting Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

Whenever there are forest fires and chimneys in the wine region, the wine professionals first try to process the many horrors that have been inflicted on the people of this country and then wonder what impact this will have on the yields for that year. The effect of the smoke on the grapes is hard to say.

Just because you have smoke in your home doesn’t mean your grapes are exposed to smoke, says Anita Olberholster, a researcher at the University of California at Davis who studies this issue. What we tell the manufacturers: If there is smoke, there is a potential risk. But it is a potential risk. Don’t think. It’s very hard to predict.

Over the past three years, wildfires have burned nearly 3.8 million acres in California.

Tom Collins, who studies the effects of smoke on wine at Washington State University in Richland, Washington, agrees.

It’s a complex mix of things, from smoking in the vineyard to the effect on the quality of the wine, Collins says. You need to consider all the different factors to understand whether or not a particular impact will lead to a problem.

These factors include everything from wind speed and the age of the smoke to decisions about the wine and the composition of the wine itself. In fact, it may even be difficult to assess the effects of smoke.


What is a plume?

The effects of smoke on grapes can range from so-called effects to effects that may be relatively minor. These grapes can still be used for wine production, but perhaps with a few modifications. The scale rises to the point of smoke, where the wine is considered spoiled.

Smoke affected wines can smell of mesquite smoke, tar and cloves. They can range from very subtle to obvious.

The smoke from early fermentation will smell wonderful, says Brian Rudin, winemaker at Canvasback in Walla Walla, Wash. It can have a woody, resinous spiciness that is appealing, or almost smell like Mexican chocolate. But this can be a distraction later in the wine’s life, adding a layer of flavor that has no place.

Just because you have smoke doesn’t mean your grapes are exposed to it. – Anita Olberholster, University of California, Davis.

The flavors of a smoked wine can become more and more pronounced.

It’s not that subtle wave of wood fire in the distance, says Tim Kirk, co-owner/winemaker at Clonakilla in the Australian district of Canberra. It’s a burnt salami served on an ashtray.

Caleb Foster, winemaker at J.J. Foster Winery. The Bookwalter of Richland, Washington, agrees.

It’s like licking an ashtray or the burnt side of a cigar, Foster says. I tend to have [these flavors] up or down, at the beginning of the flavor or at the end.

What causes smoke stains?

The effects of smoke in wine occur when trees and other vegetation are burned.

A quarter of the wood consists of a compound called lignin, the structural element that gives the wood strength and stiffness. When lignin burns, compounds called volatile phenols are formed in the air. These compounds can be transported over long distances. Eventually the compounds break down or sink to the bottom.

Therefore, it can be difficult to determine its effect.

One of the most common questions I get is that I am X number of miles from the fire. Am I sure? Olberholster said. It’s not a question of distance per se. That depends on many different factors. We had [vineyards] that were 100 miles away than those 10 miles away.

In 2019 and 2020, Australia was hit by fires affecting Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria/Getty.

The intensity of the smoke and the duration of exposure are conducive to long-term exposure to the grapes.

Another important factor is the freshness of the smoke. Volatile compounds that cause smoke stains may decompose or settle over time and on disposal.

People see smoke and worry about its possible effects, but the visual presence of smoke and even an air quality index are not necessarily reliable indicators of its effect on grapes.

When we look at the smoke, we often only see particles, says Olberholster. The solids are not volatile phenols. Volatile phenols are very, very small. They’re not even measured by particle counters.

Smoke in the vineyards

Once the smoke enters the vineyard, these volatile compounds can reach the vines and leaves and, depending on the stage of the growing season, the berries. In the latter case, these are the most serious problems.

The berries are a bit like a sponge, Olberholster says. Smoke] does not stay outside the skin. It’s actually moving inward.

Once the volatiles in the smoke enter the bay, a chemical reaction takes place.

When grapes are exposed to volatile smoke compounds, they absorb these compounds and then add sugar units to them, says Eric Wilkes, a chemist who studies smoke dyes at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

This process is considered a defense mechanism that makes these compounds less harmful to the plant, but also more difficult to detect.

The stage of the plant’s growth cycle can also be crucial. Studies show that grapes are more likely to be affected by smoke during the first seven days after bearing, when grapes change color. However, the risk remains until harvest. Early cases of smoking can still have an impact.

If they’re of the right type, it looks like you have a pre-existing condition that could affect the quality of the fruit and wine, Collins says.

Smoke exposure test

Determining the effects of smoke on grapes is not just a matter of tasting.

Tasting grapes doesn’t tell you anything, Foster says. Delicious tasting grapes can be smoked. Instead, winemakers must rely on two tools: analytical testing and sensory evaluation.

Analytical tests are performed by a commercial laboratory that tests the grapes, ferments the juice, or both. The laboratory examines two to thirteen markers that indicate possible exposure to smoke, such as B. volatile compounds and sugary compounds. However, smoke contains thousands of compounds and wine is still in its infancy. So even these measures may not tell the whole story.

Usually, we try to do an evaluation based on the analysis of a product that is still in its infancy, to see how it evolves into a mature product, says Con Simos, Industry Development and Support Manager at AWRI. It’s a real challenge.

Tasting grapes means nothing to you. Great grapes can be smoked – Caleb Foster, J. Winery Bookwalker

Some of these marker compounds are also found in toasted oak barrels. Once a wine comes into contact with oak, either during fermentation or aging, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the effects of smoke without examining a broader range of compounds. Even trials of stainless steel juices or fermented grapes can be nuanced and not lead to binary answers.

We can’t tell anyone: Your fruit will be spoiled, or your wine will be spoiled, Wilkes says. What we can tell, though, is if your grape is within range for these compounds, or if it’s only slightly higher, or if it’s hugely higher. It is about enabling people to better assess risks.

Sensory evaluation

For sensory evaluation, fermentation in buckets or fermentation on a small scale before harvest followed by tasting the fermented juice is used.

However, this creates many problems. First, there is an inextricable link between the smell and taste of the juice, which actively ferments and releases compounds that can enhance or mask the aromas and flavors of the smoke.

There are also many human variables.

Of course, there is a lot of genetic diversity in people and they can smell and taste, says Elizabeth Tomasino of Oregon State University, who studies the sensory aspects of exposure to grape smoke. About 20% of the population has no taste [smoking points]. But there’s still 80% left.

Within this 80%, sensitivity can vary by a factor of a hundred. Foster experienced this by pouring wine he knew was smoky to a group of winemakers and gardeners. The reactions were diverse.

At that point, I realized it was really hard, Foster says. I don’t want to be in a market where some people think it’s good and others don’t. And some people will be angry because they just spent that money and think I lied to them.

The visual presence of smoke and even the air quality index are not necessarily reliable indicators of its effects on grapes/Getty

Finally, the composition of the wine itself can influence the effect of the smoke.

If you have a slightly different [alcohol] concentration, it changes your perception of these compounds, Tomasino says, adding that the variety and style of wine also play a role. We have found that we reach different [sensory] thresholds with different Pinot Noirs.

Treatment methods

Once the potentially exposed grapes are harvested and delivered to the winery, various winemaking techniques can reduce or exacerbate the potential effects.

The more you process, the more sap you extract, the higher the emissions of these compounds, says Simos of AWRI.

Manual harvesting reduces the risks, as does the omission of leaves and stems, by minimising the time taken for the juice to ferment on the peel, limiting the use of flavouring or colour-enhancing enzymes, cooling the fermentation and storing the individual fractions in the press.

If the wine is lightly smoked, the winemaker can try stirring agents, activated carbon or reverse osmosis. All approaches must be flown with caution.

There are many processes that inevitably affect the quality of the wine, Simos says.

Analytical tests have their limits. Interpretation can be nuanced and in large-scale disasters, capacities can be overstretched.

The timing of treatment is also crucial.

If you want to treat a wine to smoking, it’s best to do it at a young age, says Rudin of Cold Exchange. You have to be careful not to take away all the delicious flavors and textures. Like having a beautiful painting, but with a fly stuck in the oil paint. There’s only one thing we want to try and touch.

At higher levels, or later in the process, winemakers sometimes have no choice but to leave the wine. Smoke stains can also occur during processing, when the wine matures in the bottle and releases smoke compounds associated with sugars.

I’ve never been able to solve a problem, Foster says. I’ve made great wines from moldy grapes and grapes with other problems. There’s always something you can do to make wine that you can support. But with smoke detection, sometimes you hit a dead end.

Industry in the spotlight

In many cases, however, exposure to smoke has little or no effect on the final wines. Such is the case with the 2018 Washington, D.C., vintage, where wood smoke filled the air for weeks during portage and harvest. Not only do the resulting wines seem low impact, but they are probably the best of the last twenty years.

Such complexities make it difficult for winemakers and grape growers to make decisions.

What are you going to do? Said Rudin. If you see a little smoke in the air, don’t give up and crush the grapes. Our task is to produce the best wines every year, whatever the circumstances.

In other cases, where the smoke is heavy, the consequences can be devastating. This was the case in some Australian vineyards during the 2019-2020 fires.

It looked like the whole coast was on fire, said Tim Kirk from Clonakilla, New South Wales. You could see that strange red glow from 50-100 kilometers away.

Although the fires occurred far from his vineyard, tests showed that smoke markers in Kirk’s grapes were ten times higher than most people would notice and find undesirable.

We made a very painful decision when we saw enough test results that we couldn’t make wine from our vines or wineries, Kirk says. We were just saying: We can’t do that.

Analytical tests also have their limitations. Interpretation can be nuanced and in large-scale disasters, capacities can be overstretched. This happened when smoke covered the entire west coast of the United States during the 2020 harvest.

We are at war, says Gordon Burns, president of ETS Laboratories on St. Helena. St. Helena, California, mid-September. The affected areas are totally new. If [wineries] need a number for their insurance coverage, we can help. If they are trying to do an analysis to determine this year’s crop, it is unlikely that we can meet that need.

Later in the month, the main HTA laboratory had to be closed due to forest fires in the immediate area.

Last season, testing capacity was similarly exceeded in Australia.

One of the hardest emails I’ve ever had to send is the one where I tell clients that you won’t get any results within 10 business days, even if your fruit is ready to be picked, Wilkes says.

Ultimately, the winemakers and vintners must decide how to proceed based on what the tests say and what they taste. Consumers will then have to decide whether they want to buy wine from wine growers who may have been contaminated by smoke.

It’s really a problem for the industry, because no one would knowingly sell a bad product, says Foster, who points out that smoke-contaminated wines are not a health hazard. You can drink wine contaminated with smoke. It’s not poison. But the question is whether we love him.

As large fires and similar phenomena become more common, researchers and growers continue to try to better understand the chimney. Their goal is to develop prevention methods in the vineyard, create remediation methods in the cellar and refine testing.

The industry is worth $72 billion in the United States, and the financial impact of catastrophic fires like those of the past four years is clear. Even small events can have a devastating effect on farmers and vintners.

What has happened in several countries this year is a wake-up call for viticulture around the world, Simos says. We’re not really going to do anything about climate change. It’s something we have to live with. It won’t go away. It’s something people have to adapt to, live with, and develop strategies to deal with.

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