Smoke Taint is an Expression of Terroir

California Wildfires-Wine CountryAlthough early reports from parts of California and Oregon are grim, it is still too early to determine how much the 2020 vintage will be affected by smoke taint. At this point, there really is no way to be sure about the extent of smoke damage. This  article on the Bay Area’s CBS affiliate’s website explains why:

And now the labs are overrun,” said Dr. Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis enology professor. “They have a 30-day backlog at this point in time so, not only do you need to pick a week from now but you can only get your number 30 days from now.”

Oberholster’s research shows the most accurate markers for smoke damage only show up after fermentation, which means fruit tested in the field may miss signs of exposure.

The is a real dilemma for winemakers trying to decide what to do with their grapes. Some are ready to give up on the 2020 vintage.

It’s a dilemma facing a lot of Bay Area grape growers right now: whether or not to harvest at all. Smoke damage, called “taint,” can affect the taste and aroma of wine and the industry doesn’t want to do anything to degrade the region’s reputation for quality.

“We will not be making — much less releasing — wines that have any type of impact from smoke, I can promise you that,” said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association.

That sounds a bit too categorical. Every situation is different. If you’re in the business of selling grapes, your customers will want to know what they’re getting. They won’t want to buy grapes they might not be able to use. But winemakers, especially winemakers who care about terroir, face a different question. Is smoke taint an element of terroir?

Wine is remarkable because it reflects the geographical characteristics of the region in which the grapes are grown, and those variations are the source of wines’ appeal for many wine lovers. It is obvious that wine regions in the Western U.S. will face the threat of wildfires every vintage going forward. Fire is as much a part of the ecosystem of wine grapes in these regions as temperature spikes at harvest. If you can taste fire in the wine, isn’t that like tasting the effects of morning fog or a spring frost?

It’s not as if smoky flavors are unusual or always a defect, as fans of the Northern Rhone will attest. If smoky flavors are acceptable when they result from the toast on oak barrels, why not when the cause is a naturally occurring, local phenomenon.

Of course, no one wants a mouthful of ash. If the smoke flavors are unbalanced that will be a problem. But winemakers have ways of controlling smoke taint, up to a point, through fining and filtering.

One complication is that the effects of smoke taint are unpredictable. As a wine ages, the smoke flavors may become more apparent. But that unpredictability is what makes terroir-driven wines interesting and is part of the allure of drinking aged wines.

I doubt that fans of Yellowtail want smoke aromas in their Syrah. They want this year’s vintage to taste like last year’s vintage. But the terroirists should make a virtue out of necessity.

As wine lovers, we should embrace the influence of smoke and reward those winemakers who learn to make the influence of smoke a virtue and a source of interesting variations.

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