Smoke Taint In Wine | What’s It All About?

Harry Lambourne
23rd November 2023

Winemakers are often at the mercy of the environment. Raising temperatures can cause crops to die and alcohol levels to rise. On the other end of the spectrum, frost can devastate crops in spring. But, what about smoke taint in wine?

This is a consequence of the localised forest fires which have cropped up across the west coast of America and Australia. Forest fires devastated large chunks of land and surrounding vineyards were not safe from this.

Those vineyards which managed to avoid direct contact with the fires are still vulnerable to smoke taint in wine. But, what is smoke taint in wine and how does it affect the final product?

We’ll take you through forest fires as a natural, or controlled occurrence. We’ll also take you through the effects of it, as it can severely impact the flavour of wine. Finally, for the adventurous among you, we’ll show you how you could help out the winemakers affected by smoke taint in wine and get a taste of something wholly different to whatever you’ve tried before!

Smoke Taint In Wine – Forest Fires

It goes without saying that the raging and far-reaching forest fires which the world has seen over the past few years were devastating. They ripped through some of the world’s most beloved wine-regions in the world. It is anticipated that the 2020 fires are still causing disruption to these areas and the wine industry lost around $3.7 billion due to their effects. 

Yet, as Jancis Robinson points out, wildfires are often a controlled and necessary act. Every few decades controlled forest fires are started to remove the older drier trees and to try and prevent more disastrous events down the line. In her native British Columbia, (a great wine region within its own right), around 900000 acres burn each year.

Oregon Wine Region
Oregon Wine Region – Frequently Affected By Smoke Taint In Wine

While they may sometimes be necessary, things are changing and the forest fires we’re seeing are so much more intense than anyone could manage. Forests become dryer and due to climate change the forests are becoming more susceptible to uncontrollable fires in hotter and drier conditions than the world has seen previously.

Australia, Chile, Canada, even parts of Spain and the USA, (in California and the Pacific North-West), have all experienced the worst of it. Vineyard areas could be lost, as could the infrastructure around it and there’s even a threat to the life of the workers.

Yet, beyond this the apocalyptic flames which rise from the trees have carried another hazard with them. The plumes of smoke impact the air quality and this can cause issues within the grapes. This is what we called smoke taint in wine. So, let’s take a look at how this can harm the final product which we all know and love.

Smoke Taint In Wine – What’s The Impact?

Essentially, the far-reaching thick clouds of smoke will drift over the vineyard. While the grapes are changing colour, (a process known as veraison), right up until the time of harvest they are susceptible to changes from this smoke. 

The degree to how much the smoke can affect the wine can be varied. It can be subtle and actually elevate the product in very rare cases, but more often than not it completely ruins it. Another issue is that it can only really start to truly show at the end of the winemaking process.

A winemaker from Walla Walla in Washington notes how it can add a nice woody, resinous smell at the beginning of the fermentation process. You can smell aromas of smoke, tar and clove which are features of some of the world’s best oaked wine.

There is no making wine without fermentation
The Fermentation Process Is Where Smoke Taint In Wine Begins To Show

Yet, as time goes on these aromas can overtake everything else. It can overwhelm and ruin the wine. At this point, the labour has gone into the product so the costs of having to dump an inferior product are greater. Many winemakers of good wine will opt to simply toss the wine, rather than try to mask it with additional elements such as sugar.

You may think that this may seem hasty. Sure, there’s some smoke taint in wine but how bad can it truly be? It’s bad. It’s likened to an ashtray and kerosene, which I think most people want to avoid drinking.

Coming back to Jancis Robinson, she speaks of being in blind tastings which look to study the effects of smoke taint in wine. This includes wines which have been affected by it, as well as those which have tried to make its effects. In her words: “Each tasting was a horrible experience, ruining my palate for days”.

So, if they’re so bad, how can winemakers adjust? How can they ensure that they aren’t losing huge amounts of grapes to the increasingly frequent and several natural events?

Smoke Taint In Wine – What Can BE Done?

Many have noted that increased levels of alcohol can help to mask the rougher and unpleasant tastes which are brought about through smoke taint in wine. This has led some winemakers in California and Australia to adopt a novel approach. Now, rather than experiencing smoke taint in wine, you can experience smoke taint in brandy.

Brandy is a distilled spirit made from a base grape wine. This has led to some winemakers donating their grapes either to distillers or research projects. The goal is to try and produce an enjoyable product which utilises, rather than wastes, grapes which are affected by smoke taint.

The overtly smokey aromas can actually work well in these drinks with higher alcohol content as the fiery spirit quality drowns them out more than in wine. These aren’t easy to come across, but we hope that as time goes on these new and inventive ways of addressing smoke taint in wine can take hold. Winemakers are famously ingenious people and they’ll find a way to turn this potentially disastrous factor into something delicious. Keep an eye out for smoke taint brandy – it may be on your shelves closer than you think!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this read on a new and ever-changing issue in the world of wine. If you’re ever at a wine-tasting in the West of America or Australia, you may be lucky, (or unlucky), enough to try smoke taint in wine. If not, hold out and you might be able to get some smoke taint in brandy!

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