Smoke Taint – How Wildfires are Compromising Vintages

In 2017, record-breaking fires swept through California. And while the majority of wine countries grapes had already been harvested, winemakers were still concerned that the 2017 vintages would be too damaged with smoke taint to hit the market.

But the wine industry says that, for the most part, their product was unaffected. With the increased frequency of fires in America’s wine country and across the globe, wineries have grown adept at understanding, identifying and removing smoke taint — a specific flavor profile that comes from fire exposure.

See, wildfires are not an exclusively American problem for wine regions. Ideal vineyard conditions are often also ideal wildfire conditions. Wineries in Australia, Chile, Portugal, Spain, Washington state, and California have lost billions of dollars due to wildfire damaged wine.

Depending on the timing of the fires, the wine may not be salvageable. In 2008, California experienced persistent wildfires before budbreak. The result was that the fire’s detritus was absorbed by the vines, carried into the skins. If the fires come when fruit is on the vine, the smoke will penetrate the skins and compromise the juice. Climate change has already made growing seasons less certain, the increased frequency and unpredictability of wildfires has made it more so.

The wine industry is examining genetic diversity, seeking grape varieties that might adapt to the future climate. Many experts predict that Napa will grow a broader mix of grape varieties in the future, perhaps to hedge their bets. Extensive testing has been kickstarted to identify smoke tainted grapes/product and hopefully shed some light on which varieties of wine are most susceptible to smoke taint.

But once a grape is tainted, what can you do? Some wineries sell the damaged grapes in bulk, to be blended in with other wines. Some rename it with a kitschy fire-related name and lean on the smoke taint in marketing. Some scientists are developing ways to filter the fire-related contamination/flavor out of the wine – in all of these methods, there’s a risk of removing/compromising the intended aromas and flavors of the product. While most of the concern seems to circulate around the plants themselves, some wineries are experimenting with alternative storage methods – seeing if, for example, the airtight seals of stainless steel wine barrels can provide another layer of protection.

Whatever the approach, smoke taint is a challenge that is begging for a solution. Extreme weather events are the new normal and wine industry and the whole world can only persevere.