Maybe the first thought you had on reading this post was Hank Williams and “little bit of smoke an’ a whole lotta wine”. But no, this is more serious.

Fruit can be affected by smoke. A few years ago, I attended a course at Smokey Jo’s on how and what to smoke. All the usual smoking techniques (and some pretty bizarre ones) were demonstrated. We experimented on meats, fish and cheese. The course tutors encouraged even wider application of smoking, and they made some awesome orange marmalade using smoked oranges. So I can personally assure you that smoke matters with fruit.

There has been debate for many decades over whether aromas from certain plants could affect the taste of wines from nearby vineyards. In the frame were some aromatic herbs like rosemary. In Australia, eucalyptus trees were another suspect plant. Then in 2003, there were major bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales (in Australia). It was feared that the smoke could cause the wines produced there to be tainted.

Investigations by the Australian Wine Research Institute confirmed that samples exhibited characteristics of smoke, burning, ash, salami, crispy bacon and even (shudder) ashtrays. White wines were less affected than reds, as the smoke taint was concentrated in grape skins. Red wines are fermented in contact with the grape skins to extract color and flavor, allowing the smoke taint to move into the wine. Similar results were found in South Africa after fires there in 2009. And even in USA, there have been problems in California and, last year, in Washington.

Nearer home, a wicked 2008 wildfire season in Northern California caused many wines (notably those from Mendocino County). This year, the extensive California fires has put Carmel Valley wines into the at risk category.

Various treatments have been proposed for the tainted wine, but they all provided small benefit in comparison to the costs. Most of the smoke affected wine ended up sold at a discount and blended into cheap wines.

But the news is not all bad. Smoke taint doesn’t present any health hazard, so no reason to stop drinking wine on account of this. Quality red wine is usually matured in oak barrels, which can also provide a smokey flavor – so many wine drinkers are used to this characteristic. And if you are really concerned – drink Georgian wines – we’ve not had serious fires here, thank goodness.

Robin Hall

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