By: George Balling
We have dedicated ample column space over the last couple of years chronicling and bringing wine consumers up to date on wines from the Western United States and how they have faired in some quite smoky years. Now though we are starting to see wines from those vintages show up in the market. As we taste them, we have found the results to be somewhat “lumpy” and also a bit unpredictable.
After grapes go through verasion, for red grapes this is when they turn from green to purple, the skins become porous and are susceptible to absorbing many things through the skins including smoke. In the worst cases like 2017 and 2020 in Northern California and 2018 and 2019 in Oregon the fire situation became so dire that ash literally built up on the grape bundles, the worst possible scenario. Once the smoke flavor makes it into the grape skins there is no way to mitigate it. Once grapes are tainted with smoke they never should be used for wine or anything else.
If you taste smoke tainted wine you will recognize it instantly. It is not a pleasant smokiness like you might get from wine that had extensive time in an oak barrel. No, it resembles burning rubber, or an old stale ashtray variety of smoke. It is most unpleasant and renders the wine undrinkable, which is why all reputable winemakers will not make wine from smoke tainted grapes. The challenge for winemakers is that many times the smokiness will not show up until the grapes are picked and fermenting. Winemakers are getting better though at detecting which grapes are most likely to be tainted, for instance if the grapes are covered with ash for an extended period, it is a pretty safe bet the crop is shot.
Fast forward to where we are now, starting to try wines from various appellations across vintages. Generally, we have found that reputable winemakers just did not produce wine when they had taint, or if they did, they bulked the wine out to big box retailers who private label the wine. We know they have done this as some familiar varietals from our favorite wineries are just absent. We have though just recently tasted some wines that clearly were altered by the smokey conditions. Forewarning though, we aren’t going to name names here. We are hoping that those who did bottle the smoke tainted wines did it by accident and the rough conditions of recent years are not their fault. Instead, we have been very clear about not only needing to try any wine from these fiery vintages before we put it on our shelves or in our wine club. If we find any trace of smoke, we will not buy it. You can be confident that we will not sell smoke tainted wine.
Whites in general have been safe and as good as ever. Part of this is due to the facts of winemaking. White wine grapes are picked earlier than reds. They are also fermented off the skins further removing the contaminated part of the grape from the process. Having said that, we have recently tasted three different Chardonnays from Northern California that have been tainted so diligence is required.
Oregon as I mentioned above is another region of origin to be careful with. Just recently we have tasted several wines from both the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon that were showing signs of taint. While the fires in Oregon have not been of the scale that they have been in Northern California they do seem to have affected small areas of the grape growing regions across the state. Diligence is in order when buying wines from Oregon made in recent vintages but especially 2018 and 2019.
Red wines that come from the appellations of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino Counties in Northern California are those that require the most caution. Especially from 2017 and 2020 vintages you should proceed with extreme caution. 2020 Though will be a bit easier to navigate as most winemakers didn’t produce any wine that year. With 2017 it is only the late ripening varietals that require care when choosing bottles to buy as the fires started much later in harvest. We have tasted several reds from 2017 over recent months that are negatively impacted.
Central and Southern California and the appellations of Washington and Idaho appear to be bright spots in all of this. We have not tasted any wines that have been adversely affected by the fires and are hopeful they can fill in some of the blanks from those areas more severely affected by smoke.
It is the perfect time to rely on the advice of your favorite wine professional for all of these vintages. We have tasted all the wines in our shop and can ensure you the ones we carry are free of smoke.