Washington state wineries monitoring grapes for smoke taint

Washington State has been hit hard with wildfires. We check in with some top winemakers in the region about possible smoke taint affecting the grapes

Washington Fires - Screen Shot #LiveFromKOMO
Washington Fires - Screen Shot #LiveFromKOMO

SEATTLE, Aug. 24, 2015 — With fires burning wild in Washington State and the nearby states of Oregon and Idaho, a great deal of smoke has permeated the region – even making its way to the Seattle area. Outside of the health concerns for people breathing it in, the local wine industry is also keeping a watch on things, namely smoke taint.

This quotation from a 2012 Washington State University study demonstrates that smoke can in fact taint wine grapes: “Smoke residue contains high concentrations of volatile phenols, such as guaiacol and eugenol. ‘Smoke taint’ has been found in juice and wine made from grapes, as the glycosylated forms of these phenols tend to accumulate in the skin and mesocarp (pulp) of the berry. These compounds are released during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation (2,3), causing the wine to become unpleasantly ‘pharmaceutical’, ‘dirty’, ‘ash tray’, ‘medicinal’, ‘camp fire’, or ‘burnt’, and reduces the perception of varietal fruit aroma.”

Pacific Rim Winery, one of the region’s top Riesling producers, is definitely on-top of the situation. Winemaker Nicolas Quille said:

There is no doubt that some vineyards close to fires that have or will be surrounded by thick smoke for an extended period of time will have tainted fruit – especially if the exposure to smoke is close to harvest.

Pacific Rim Wine
Pacific Rim Wine

At this point we have not done anything because our vineyards have not been affected. Wallula is in a windy spot where no heavy smoke has set and the Yakima valley has been fine as well. It might be an entire different story in Lake Chelan, the southern Okanagan and perhaps the Columbia Gorge.

We do taste juice and visit vineyards intensely at this time of year and so far have not tested anything bad. We always have the choice to send a sample or two to ETS for analysis to double-check the level of taint in grapes. We might do this just to double-check a few blocks (one in the Yakima Valley and one in the Horse Heaven hills) and make sure there are no issues undetected by taste.

Should any block come tainted, we would first ask the grower to spray the clusters with water. We might remove leaves before picking to avoid any leaves in the load. Any contaminated load would be kept separated. Then we always have the option to do some membrane treatment to remove smoke taint.

Master of Wine and winemaker, Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery added: “Too early to tell what effect these fires will have.  We went through 20+ berry samples last Wednesday and there was no trace of smoke taint.  But the first and winds have evolved since then; we’re pulling samples Monday and we’ll take a look at the effects of the past week.  Fingers are crossed.”

The Lake Chelan area is one of the hardest-hit regions with wild fires so we reached out to winemaker Shane Collins of Tsillan Cellars in that area, who said:

We are taking proactive steps.  We have submitted samples to ETS in California for a berry smoke taint panel.

We have also been provided smoke taint information from ETS labs as well as Scott labs, two companies we work a lot with.

We started pressing chardonnay today and our first step we are taking is not pressing the grapes as hard at the end of the press cycle.  We will have lower yields practicing this but I think it is a great first step.  I am not overly concerned with the white grapes due to their very limited contact time of juice and skins.  I hope to have all our whites in by Labor Day and we will continue practicing this press strategy.

When we get ready to pick the red varieties we will be submitting more samples to ETS and based upon those results we will make adequate adjustments.  I imagine we will be doing quick ferments to minimize skin contact time.

There are certain products on the market one can use, but I hope to avoid any unnecessary adjustments and additions to the wines.

It is too early for me to have an opinion on what the effect of fires will be on flavors and aromas.  I think the big misconception is that smoke taint provides smoky flavors, which unfortunately is not the case.

We are taking all the necessary precautions to minimize any potential smoke taint flaws.

Tsilin Cellars
Tsillan Cellars


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