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Smoke Taint Misconceptions

October 2017
by Jim Gordon

San Rafael, Calif.—Winemakers in Northern California wine regions struck by wildfires have a legitimate worry about how widespread smoke may affect the quality of wines made from grapes harvested after the inferno began.

While fire-affected wine regions had already harvested a substantial majority of their crops before the onset of the fires, it is not too late to apply the most current knowledge about smoke taint to the remaining amount, estimated at between 10% and 25% in various counties. Here are six misconceptions about smoke taint to be aware of:

Misconception 1) Smoke is less of a risk late in the growing season: An Australian study found that taint was the most elevated when smoke exposure occurred in the period from seven days after véraison to the harvest date. California wildfires clearly erupted in that time period. Eric Herve of ETS Laboratories adds: “Grapes will keep passively adsorbing smoke volatile organic compounds as long as smoke is present.”

Misconception 2) Washing the grapes can manage smoke taint: The compounds that cause smoke taint are already inside the grapes. A bulletin from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology states that “smoke-derived volatile phenols can be absorbed both directly via the berry cuticle and via the leaves and translocated to the fruit.”

Misconception 3) Smoke can affect next year’s crop, too: Numerous sources and studies confirm that smoke taint does not linger in the plant in a way that could affect the quality of future harvests.

Misconception 4) Reverse osmosis permanently removes smoke taint: Reverse osmosis can remove smoke-derived compounds, but the taint returns over time, the UC Davis bulletin states. Basically, the smoke effects are temporarily bound up in the chemistry of the wine but can be released as the wine ages. Bob Kreisher of Mavrik North America disputes this, saying, “Membrane methods have come a long way.”

Misconception 5) Fining is an effective solution for smoke-tainted wine: Fining can effectively “clean” the smoke taint out of a wine, but fining is not a very selective process, so it will also remove many favorable attributes from a wine along with the smoke-derived compounds, the bulletin states. Fining could be counterproductive to use on potentially high-quality wines.

Misconception 6) Smoke taint in a wine diminishes as the wine ages: On the contrary, smoke taint is likely to increase with time. Industry supplier Scott Laboratories recommends on its website numerous treatments to mitigate smoke taint but adds, “Smoke-related characteristics can evolve over time, so early consumption is recommended whenever possible.”

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