Smoke Taint and the “Smoke-Curious”

wildfires in wine countryThe evidence of the past few years strongly suggests that wildfires are part of the ecosystem of wine regions in Western United States and Canada (as well as some regions in Australia.) That means, as I indicated recently, we should probably consider smoke to be part of the terroir of these regions.

Wine producers and consumers must learn to live with it. But what that means, precisely, is still up for grabs. The science of wine is hard at work trying to understand the mechanisms through which smoke influences the aromas, flavors, and textures of wine, and technology firms are busy trying to find ways of filtering out unwanted compounds. It remains to be seen how successful these technological solutions will be. Some winemakers are thus “smoke curious” entertaining the idea that some smoke influences may be acceptable if not welcomed as an intrinsic element of particular vintages.

So Esther Mobley’s article in her newsletter for the SF Chronicle is interesting as it provides an update on how some of the smoke-influenced wines from 2020 are developing. Winemakers may be “smoke curious” but few will go public with their results. But Mobley got lucky:

So I was excited when Ed Kurtzman, who makes wine for six small brands including August West, Mansfield-Dunne and Sandler, invited me to his winery in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood to taste a sampling of his 2020 wines, including several smoky specimens. He promised to be candid about the wines’ problems. No PR spins.

The results were interesting and encouraging:

The first two wines he poured, both Chardonnays from the Central Coast, tasted normal (one, from the Fiddlestix Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, was especially tasty). Those were the controls; the smoke-taint tests had come back negative, Kurtzman said. I was beginning to wonder if my palate would even be able to recognize smoke taint when I encountered it — until I put a third Chardonnay, this one from Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, to my lips. It tasted like Laphroaig: menthol, peat, aggressive flavors of smoke. Yep, I got it now. That was smoke taint.

What struck me most as we tasted through the rest was how differently the smoky flavors manifested in each wine. A Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir reminded me not of Scotch but of mezcal — it was more of a sweet, fresh, herbal smokiness. There was only one wine in the lineup, a Syrah, that showed the explicitly ashy flavors — campfire, cigarette — that I’d been looking for when we started.

It turns out that there are several compounds from smoke that affects the flavor of wine and each impacts the wine differently, although it is not yet clear how specific flavors can be mapped onto these compounds.

Beyond their individual flavor matrices, each of the smoke-impacted wines we tasted seemed to have one thing in common: a very abrupt, clipped finish. It was as if the wine just suddenly ended where you would have expected it to linger in a subtle, pleasant decrescendo.

The wines are still young—some were not quite finished with fermentation. Whether ageing will bring out more smoke or push it into the background won’t be known for awhile.

But this report from the trenches is interesting because, like most things wine-related, smoke taint is complex and it is likely there will be a range of solutions to a range of distinctly different problems.

Since I very much enjoy a good Laphroaig and a good Mezcal (cigarette ash not so much) I am also smoke-curious and look forward to tasting the 2020 vintage. Perhaps it will be the only thing praiseworthy about 2020.

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