The Effect of Fire and Smoke Taint on Wine

Smoke taint in wine is something that has been a big issue over the last few years, and 2020 was particularly bad. Thankfully, there’s less concern about the vines actually being burnt as they’re not very flammable, however the heat from the fires can kill the vines, and the smoke can affect the grapes, therefore affecting the wine.

Fire smoke has two parts, there’s the smoke particulates which is what you can see in the air and there’s the smoke vapors which is what you smell. The smoke particulates have no effect on the grapes, but the vapors are what what carries the smoke flavor that has the potential of destroying an entire vintage of wine. Unfortunately, the technology to determine the impact of the smoke taint is not quite advanced enough yet and takes too long to produce the results anyway, so winemakers have to make the blind decision themselves on whether to harvest the grapes early, whether to wait, or whether they’ll be scrapping the entire harvest.

Why can’t you just taste the grapes to see if they have the smoke taint? Because when the smoke vapors form on the grapes and seep in the grape actually fights them off as though they’re viruses. To do this, the vapor molecule is bound by a sugar molecule, which then protects it from spreading anywhere. So when you taste the grape, you taste the sugar, without tasting the smoke. But when it comes to crushing them down and macerating the grapes, the smoke taint can slowly seep out, and this can continue to happen while bottled for years to come. Perhaps the wine is okay this year, but 5 years down the track, the smoke taint can come creeping in, destroying the vintage. This shows the damage that the fires can have on vineyards and their wine, their owners and careers. See more from the SOMM TV excerpt below, and sign up to continue watching this episode of Sommelier’s Notebook as well as Wine & Food 411, which delves deeper into the California fires of 2020 in 4 short episodes.
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