Smokin’ Grapes

CA wildfire

Making wine is not for the faint of heart. Sure, in a good year nature cooperates, there is a bountiful harvest, and the wines are exquisite and plentiful. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. Over the centuries, winemakers have struggled against weather conditions which can destroy their crops, such as the damaging frosts that occurred this Spring across much of France, including Bordeaux and Burgundy. As if that isn’t enough, Mother Nature has other tricks up her sleeve, such as vine-killing diseases, insects, and . . .

Wildfires. In recent years, Napa and Sonoma have been beset by severe wildfires. Tragically, wineries and vineyards have been destroyed and human lives lost. But even vineyards that were spared from the direct impact of wildfires lost their crops because of something called “smoke taint,” which occurs when grapes are exposed to dense smoke over an extended period.

  • It turns out that there are “good” and “bad” types of smoke impacts in wine. The good type, which generally comes from toasted oak barrels, provides a pleasant complexity. The “bad” type, smoke taint caused by wildfires, leaves the wine undrinkable, with an unpleasant ashtray-like quality that irritates the back of the throat. Because red wines spend more time in contact with the grape skins, they are more susceptible to smoke taint.
  • The 2020 vintage suffered the worst wildfire damage in California history. Unlike previous years, where most wildfires happened after the grapes were safely harvested, the 2020 wildfires occurred before and during the harvest, and many grapes were ruined.
  • Wildfires, of course, are not unique to California. The U.S. West Coast is increasingly susceptible, and in recent years Australia and Provence have been hit hard.

The industry is just starting to come to grips with smoke taint. The chemistry of smoke taint is understood, but so far there is no effective way to “rescue” grapes that have been exposed. Additionally, detecting smoke taint can be tricky. Often, testing grapes after harvest reveals the presence of smoke taint, and they are discarded.  For reasons not yet understood, grapes that test negative for smoke taint can still produce tainted wines. Even wines that seem fine when they're bottled can show smoke taint a few years later.

The bottom line for 2020 California red wines: Wineries must strike a balance between protecting their hard-earned reputations and financial survival. If they release tainted wines, their reputations can be ruined. On the other hand, foregoing a vintage because of smoke taint concerns could put a winery out of business.

  • Many Napa and Sonoma wineries didn’t make 2020 red wines. Some will spread the release of their 2018 and 2019 vintages to preserve market presence and cashflow. Needless to say, supplies will be limited and prices likely will rise.
  • For those wineries that do release 2020 red wines, the folks at University of California Davis that have studied the situation are confident that the wineries’ efforts to preserve their reputations will ensure that what is available will be good quality.

Where do we go from here? The climate trend in California is toward warmer temperatures and drought, both conducive to wildfires. So, the industry will have to adapt its viticultural practices and develop methods to ameliorate the effect of smoke taint.

Want to learn more about Napa Valley Cabs? Click here for a Wine Concepts primer.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *