Linda Murphy December 2010 column

  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

Decanter Columnists

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. And when smoke blankets vineyards, bad things can happen to grapes – and wine.

In June and July 2008, lightning ignited hundreds of wildfires across Northern California, filling the air with smoke and ash for weeks, from San Francisco north to Humboldt County. The smoke was absorbed by wine grapes – mostly Pinot Noir – as they ripened on vines, particularly in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and on the Sonoma Coast, prized Pinot regions.

White-wine grapes weren’t greatly affected, as smoke compounds are stored in the skins of grapes rather than the pulp. Since few white wines receive extended skin contact during vinification, they escaped unfazed. Sturdy, late-ripening grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, had not fully coloured up at the time of the fires and were far less susceptible to smoke taint. Early ripening Pinot Noir, however, that most delicate of varieties, was the major victim – the grapes were more advanced in physiological maturity when the fogs of smoke rolled into vineyards.

Proximity to the fires, the intensity and duration of the smoke, and wind patterns determined which vineyards were most affected by the fires. Not all of Anderson Valley suffered serious smoke intrusion, and most of the Sonoma Coast appellation dodged the drama. Yet enough grapes and wines were affected that consumers should be careful in their 2008 purchases. Try before you buy, if you can.

Two primary compounds associated with smoke taint are guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, manifesting themselves in wines that taste as though one has licked a wet ashtray – in both flavour and texture. Wines aged in heavily toasted oak barrels can also contain guaiacol and have a smokiness to them, yet they typically don’t have the acrid bitterness of a smoke-tainted wine.

Winemakers who handled smokeaffected grapes dealt with the situation in various ways. Bob Cabral, executive winemaker for Pinot Noir pioneer Williams Selyem in Russian River Valley, sold off as bulk the wines he made from vineyards heavily affected by the fires in Anderson Valley, taking the financial loss rather than risking his brand’s reputation. Adam Lee of Siduri, also based in Sonoma County, tried filtering the Pinot Noir he vinified from two smokeimpacted vineyards, but found the vineyard characteristics were stripped away. He declassified the wines and used them in broader blends.

Ben Cane, winemaker for Twomey in Russian River Valley, managed to remove guaiacol phenols from his 2008 Anderson Valley Pinot with micro-filtration and still come up with a beauty of a wine – complex, suave and without a hint of smoke or ash. Some of his peers were not so fortunate.

Vintners faced unpleasant choices if filtration and/or fining did not remove the nasty stuff. Do they skip the vintage? Reduce the price? Reduce the quantity so that only the purest wine lots make the cut? Declassify the fruit to a second label? Try to blend the taint away? Sell the wine on the bulk market?

Navarro Vineyards, in the heart of Anderson Valley, dealt with its smoky red wines by bottling them under its Indian Creek second label. In its first Wildfire Offering in September, Navarro sold its Indian Creek Pinot Noirs for as much as 65% below the regular price. Winery personnel openly discussed the issue with consumers, trade and media.

While I have not tasted any 2008 California Pinot Noirs I perceived to be affected by wildfire smoke, vintners have told me, under promise of anonymity, that some high-end 2008 Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley are being sold at the same prices as the 2007 vintage, and the producers are saying nothing about their wines’ smokiness.

My lack of contact with such Pinot Noirs is because they aren’t being shown to critics, and because they are mostly expensive, small-production, mailing-listonly wines that aren’t sold in shops. When times are good, makers of small-volume wines can clear a profit, yet when a year such as 2008 comes along, they can hardly afford to cut prices or declassify.

The wise and honest will accurately describe how their wines smell and taste to their customers. They will acknowledge the conditions of 2008 and explain the efforts they made to limit smoke taint. They will cut prices, as Navarro did, and make the best of a lousy situation.

Yet others will send their wines to market with nary a peep about fires, and cross their fingers. Maintaining a good relationship with customers has never been more important in the wine industry than it is now; wineries that don’t own up to smoke-affected wines are in danger of losing customers not just for one vintage, but for life.

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