Winemakers fear that wildfires will leave an ashtray in their wine.

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At the Cathedral Ridge Winery in Hood River, Ore., smoke has poured into the property and there are worries it could alter the taste of the grapes.

Winemakers fear that wildfires will leave an ashtray in their wine.

It’s been a tough year for the west coast vineyards. Wildfires in northern California in October and wildfires in southern California this month have blackened many wine countries. While California’s 2017 grapes are safely harvested, winemakers around the world are wary of the threat of increased frequency of wildfires: smoke.

When the grapes are exposed to the smoke, they smoke. The resulting wine has an unpleasant taste, often described as ashes, charred and ashtrays. California growers this year may have been lucky, but including Australia, South Africa, Chile and Portugal, important wine region in recent years have taken place in the serious fire, climate change is expected to intensify.

It’s been a tough year for the west coast vineyards. Wildfires in northern California in October and wildfires in southern California this month have blackened many wine countries. While California’s 2017 grapes are safely harvested, winemakers around the world are wary of the threat of increased frequency of wildfires: smoke.

When the grapes are exposed to the smoke, they smoke. The resulting wine has an unpleasant taste, often described as ashes, charred and ashtrays. California growers this year may have been lucky, but including Australia, South Africa, Chile and Portugal, important wine region in recent years have taken place in the serious fire, climate change is expected to intensify.

that can be used as a risk-assessment tool to detect the exact level of compounds in grapes, quickly and without fermentation. Their work was published in the Journal of Agricultural Chemistry in August.

“There are tests out there but we found them to be wanting when we reviewed the literature,” says lead researcher , a PhD candidate at UBC Okanagan. “We sort of revised the mouse trap, and we feel we have a much better approach to understanding the concentration of these compounds in the berry,” he says. They looked at eight different compounds.

Michael Pond, left, looks through ashes as his wife Kristine, center, gets a hug from Zack Thurston, their daughter’s boyfriend, while they search the remains of their home destroyed by fires in Santa Rosa, California.

To test their method of detecting the phenols in grapes, Noestheden and UBC Okanagan assistant chemistry professor, began field trials (literally) in 2016. They set up small tents around a section of vines in a few obliging growers’ vineyards in British Columbia and filled the tents with smoke. They kept tabs on the compounds in the grapes from ripening through to fermentation. Early test results show that they were able to match the concentration of compounds in the berries while they were still on the vine with the ones in the resulting wine.

They made bad wine from their smoked grapes, and they’re happy about it. “When we can claim we can make a terrible tasting wine, that excites us,” says Zandberg. They were able to detect the phenols in the wine with only two hours of smoke exposure on the grapes — an hour a day over two days, he says.

One of the duo’s test sites is Quail’s Gate, one of the oldest vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Smoke taint is a massive concern for the wine industry, says Quail’s Gate winemaker Nikki Hallaway, and also a bit of an off-limits for discussion because no one wants their wines associated with it. “It’s kind of a taboo topic because nobody really understands the how, what, why, where,” she says.

“Any time you filter a wine to that extent, you’re taking out good stuff as well as bad stuff,” she says. Quail’s Gate agreed to let the researchers into their vineyard because the winery is interested in new research that could help solve the problem.

Noestheden and Zandberg are looking beyond smoke taint. “Now we’re going to try to connect the analytical chemistry to what a seasoned sensory analyst can actually taste,” says Zandberg. In other words, they want to remove some of the subjectivity of winemaking and wine tasting, and improve understanding of desirable wine traits. “It’s the same biochemistry in both grape and yeast during fermentation, so we’re hoping in the long term to turn this into a clear understanding of what goes on during fermentation and how you can harness small changes in the vineyard or the winery to improve wine flavor,” he says. “But that’s a longer term adventure.”

AWRI’s Krstic cautions that while Noestheden’s and Zandberg’s science is sound, he thinks there needs to be more testing and positive results before winemakers will know exactly how smoke is impacting their wines.

The researchers acknowledge there’s much left to be discovered. “I’m shocked daily by it,” says Noestheden. “We’ve [been] making wine for 5,000 years, and there’s still a mountain we don’t know.”

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