Wine industry fearful of ‘smoke taint’

Wine industry fearful of ‘smoke taint’

22 October 2008

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Australia — The Australian wine industry is worried that it may literally go “up in smoke” because climate change predictions suggest that there will be a lot more bushfires in future.

Wineries around the world have only recently woken up to the damaging effect of bushfire smoke on their vintages.

Fires in Victoria a couple of years ago cost the industry more than $100 million.

Australian wine researchers are now leading the way in understanding smoke damage and what can be done to prevent disastrous losses in future.

Wine researcher Doctor Kerry Wilkinson, testing a couple of glasses of 2007 pinot noir from a vineyard near Victoria’s King Valley, says she can detect a smell like smoked meat in the wine.

“It’s just overall, it’s just not that pleasant a wine, it’s not fresh, it’s not showing the fruit character we’d like to see,” she said.

“It is actually a very smoky, a smoky sort of smell – to me it smells like ash.”

What she can smell is the strong taint of smoke from the bushfires that ripped through Victoria’s north-eastern alpine region in 2006 and 2007.

The grapes in this pinot noir’s vineyard were exposed to considerable amounts of the smoke, and it has permeated the wine.

The taste and smell is overpowering and the wine is basically undrinkable

“In a really severe smoke-tainted wine you’ll pick up quite strong ash, smoky – smoked meat, smoked salami, almost ashtray-like characters on the aroma,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“On the back palate it’s got a bit of a drying effect.”

The smoke from those bushfires cost the Victorian wine industry an estimated $100 million in export trade, and then there were the domestic sales lost.

Joanne Butterworth-Gray from the state’s Wine Industry Association approximates 35,000 tonnes of wine grapes became unusable across the regions.

Ominously, the bushfire’s smoke travelled a long distance and vineyards much further south in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula for example reported smoke damage.

“We believe that smoke sitting – in other words, pooling – across vineyards is a real problem,” she said.

Caught off-guard

It wasn’t until the 2003 bushfires in southern Australian regions that winemakers and scientists realised what was happening and became alarmed.

“I think we’ve all been caught a little bit off guard,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“On the world market it’s certainly picking up interest after there were considerable bushfires occurred earlier this year in the Napa Valley region, which are now beginning to show effects in Californian wine.”

Smoke taint in vineyards has now been reported after fires in Canada, California, and Greece.

Australian scientists like Dr Wilkinson are at the forefront of understanding just how the smoke gets into the grapes and wine but research is in early stages.

Initially it was thought the skin of the grapes absorbed the smoke, now it is believed it’s the leaves.

Sometimes winemakers can detect the smoke when they taste the grape, other times it will not be obvious until fermentation has taken place.

Solution needed

A variety of solutions are now being trialed, including vine sprays and reverse osmosis.

“So long as there is smoke in the air for a period that corresponds to that time when vine is most susceptible, the vine will basically suck up those smoke characters,” said David Wollan, whose company specialises in using reverse osmosis to clean up wines.

His technology was used to good effect in Canada after severe forest fires in British Columbia’s wine regions a few years ago and more recently in Victoria after the alpine fires.

“We have processed probably millions of litres of that wine using that technique,” he said.

Much of the Victorian wine that was treated this way was then sold on the market.

The Victorian wine industry is now working with the State Government to carefully plan when and where prescribed burning will occur, hoping to lessen the likelihood of vineyards getting smoked.

It is expected other wine regions will follow suit.

In the meantime, science is racing to understand more about smoke taint, so that vineyards in bushfire regions and beyond won’t be as vulnerable.

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