Ask Wine Wizard

Making Wine With Smoke-Effected Grapes


Francisco Guerra — Rohnert Park, California asks,

I live in Sonoma County, California, and we’ve had some pretty big wildfires during a few of the last harvest seasons. What’s the current thinking on how we make wine if there’s a possibility the vineyards where we’re getting our grapes are affected by smoke? I’ve heard plenty of mentions of smoke taint but still don’t know the details. I would appreciate your overview.

Indeed, the last few years (2017 and 2020 especially) grape growing areas in Northern California and other parts of the state including the Central Coast have experienced historically large wildfires. If grapes are exposed to smoke, winemakers should be alert to the possibility of smoke taint damage to grapes and to finished wines during and after these events. You’re right — it’s an important topic for almost all of us, most particularly winemakers in Mediterranean climates where falls are warm and dry, to have a handle on the current information.  Volatile phenols (which I’ll abbreviate as VPs) are released when wood burns during wildfires. VPs exist in both free and bound forms in grapes, juice, and wine and can cause a smoke taint defect in the aroma and taste of finished wines. These sensory defects have been described as “campfire,” “medicinal,” “earthy,” or “smoky,” among other terms. While some of these descriptors are common in red wines, especially those aged with toasted oak, smoke taint is especially characterized by an ash tray sensation at the back of the throat, on
Response by Alison Crowe.