When a wildfire broke out a kilometer from vineyards owned by Blue Mountain Winery in 2021, winemaker Mike Mavety says he knew the harvest would be hard work.
“It was pretty nasty,” Mavety recalled of the smoke that hung over vineyards near Okanagan Falls, BC, for nearly a month, just as the grapes were beginning to ripen.
“It would have been pretty hard to breathe… We had to limit the number of hours our guys worked.”
But the real challenge would come in the fermentation tanks.
“We went to harvest, assuming or hoping that we could do some bottling,” Mavety said.
But laboratory tests revealed relatively high levels of acrid smoke molecules that had reached the fruit. So they dumped granulated charcoal into the tanks with the crushed grapes, hoping it would help, Maverty said. it did not
“It takes out a lot of flavors and there’s not a lot of ways to put it back together,” Mavety said of the aggressive treatment for what’s known as smoke contamination.
The smell of smoke, as it suggests, is caused by airborne compounds from burned trees and dirt depositing on grapes still on the vine. Forest fires do not have to be near vineyards. And it doesn’t take a lot of smoke in the grapes to affect a batch of wine.
If allowed to remain in the final product, the smoke can produce off-flavors such as ash, barnyard, and salami.
In the end, Blue Mountain decided to cancel its entire 2021 vintage. It sold 120,000 liters of wine, not good enough for its own label, to an undisclosed company to blend with other, less prestigious wines.
“I congratulate Blue Mountain on what they did,” said Severine Pinte, winemaker for Le Vieux Pin and LaStella Wineries, located in the same Okanagan region.
“There is no way to really effectively remove smoke odor without compromising the quality of the wine.”
Smoke Stain Transparency
Research to rid the British Columbia wine industry of smoke odor is ongoing. In addition to activated carbon, winemakers can resort to reverse osmosis filtration, gentler squeezing and, in the case of red wines, removing the skins from the juice as soon as possible.
But even if the wine fits well into the bottle, some smoke molecules can find their way into the final product. If they chemically bind to the sugars in the wine, winemakers have found that they can be released after months or years of aging.
When Pinte’s company discovered this phenomenon in a couple of wines made after the fires of 2015 and 2021, the winery took the extraordinary step of warning its customers in a candid blog post this spring explaining the problem and offering advice on how to reduce off-flavors before drinking the affected bottles.
“Our philosophy is to be honest and truthful. Be completely transparent,” Pinte said.
“It’s Mother Nature. We can’t control her. I can’t put a canopy over my grapes to protect them from smoke. So we have to deal with it,” he said, adding that in the nearly three decades he’s spent making wine, smoke It’s only been a problem relatively recently, starting in 2015.
“Maybe it will be something every year. I don’t know.”
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Determining the scope of the problem is its own challenge. No winery likes to talk about the potential flaws in a natural product that is at the center of a $3.75 billion business in British Columbia, according to industry group Wine Growers British Columbia.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which sets the rules for labeling, does not require wine labels to disclose whether the grapes were exposed to smoke or to list any of the processes or methods winemakers can use to try to eliminate it.
John Schreiner, a North Vancouver wine writer who has been testing vintages for nearly 50 years, says you’ll never see a wine label with that kind of information.
“You can’t expect consumers to buy that wine if you put a warning on the label that there might be some smoky odor in here.”
Schreiner says that most consumers have nothing to worry about, especially if they buy wines certified with the Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA) label, because the wine has been evaluated by a panel of experts.
But getting details turned out to be a challenge. Questions from Breaking: to the BC Liquor Distribution branch about the discovery and prevalence of smoky odor found in BC wine were eventually referred to the Ministry of Public Safety and the Attorney General.
In an emailed response, the ministry said only that all wine sold in British Columbia liquor stores “has undergone professional quality and taste review by BC Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB),” and added that “these reviews are carried out by a certified Master.” of Wines trained to detect problems with the products”.
Neither the LDB nor the BC government directly addressed questions about smoke odor or the challenges it presents to industry and consumers.
Labeling, the ministry says, is between the winemakers and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
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drink the wines now
Justin Hall, Nk’Mip Cellars’ winemaker, says he sees no reason for labels to point out the smell of smoke or the methods you could use to remove it from a wine.
“Nothing we’re doing now isn’t already being done in one form or another,” Hall said of methods like reverse osmosis filtration. Hall says the VQA designation also allows you to blend up to 15 percent of a different vintage into a wine that might be borderline.
“It’s all about mitigating and, you know, not panicking and just dealing with it.”
Since many of the wines made in 2021 after the fires in Okanagan, BC have not been released, some may have a few smoke molecules hitchhiking waiting to be released from the bottle at some point in the future.
Tony Holler, owner of Poplar Grove Winery in Penticton, says one way to avoid an ashy surprise in an Okanagan Pinot Noir produced during a smokey year like 2021 is to put it in your glass, not your cellar.
“My suggestion to people on the 21st vintage is why take any chances? Drink those wines when you’re young.”