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Wine Department: A Brief Clarification on Smoke Taint Mythos in the Wake of the Wildfires in California and Beyond

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  • Posted: 11/29/2017
  • Categories: Wine
Smoke taint. You know it when you taste it. In the wake of the wildfires that burned tens of thousands of acres in the California counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, as well as fires in Portugal, Spain, Oregon, Washington, and Chile this year alone, we thought it prudent to talk a little bit about smoke taint in general, and dispel some of the misperceptions relating to this potential flaw in wines.

First off, smoke taint is not just residual ash that lands on the grapes and can be washed off.  Grapes exposed to excessive smoke can be at risk for compounds called volatile phenols that can be imbued into the grapes, bonding to the sugars within the grapes to form molecules known as glycosides. Once bonding takes place the volatility shuts down, only to be awakened once fermentation is initiated. This is where the problems arise.

Grapes with thicker skins are most susceptible. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, which in California, were (for the most part) picked before the recent wildfires there. There are still some onologists who debate this, but this is by-and-large proven to be true. This is problematic for red wines due to its requiring maceration with the skins in order to achieve color. White wines won’t be as affected as reds due to lack of skin contact. Grapes that come in contact with smoke between veraison (the onset of ripening) and harvest are most susceptible to smoke taint. 

A lot of folks have shared their desires to help our friends in the fire-stricken areas out in California and beyond, and the biggest help you can provide is: buy wine. Support the regions hit hardest by buying their wines and coming back for more. Below are some great wines from the aforementioned areas, including Napa’s Signorello, which its winery burned to the ground, and Mendocino’s Frey Winery.  

2015 Chardonnay “Hope’s Cuveé”
Napa Valley, California

Retail:  $89.99 LIMITED
98 points ~ Robert Parker

A stunning premier-cru Burgundy-esque Chardonnay, big and rich and voluptuous with supple, seductive creamy stone fruit aromas and flavors.

Frey Vineyards 
2016 Field Blend
Mendocino, California

Retail:  $14.99

​Primarily Syrah, Zinfandel and Merlot, this red blend is all biodynamically farmed grapes, with no detectable sulfites. A remarkable red with spicy fruit aromas and flavors.

La Cana
2015 Albarino
Rias Baixas, Spain

Retail:  $16.99
90 points ~ Wine Spectator

Acidic to the core! This bright and fresh Albarino offers flavors of white peaches, apples, and a touch of wet stone! One of our favorites year in and year out!

Quinta do Crastro
2013  Reserva Old Vines
Douro, Portugal

Retail:  $39.99
94 points ~ Robert Parker

Big and powerful red blend! Rich black fruit is the main player but exhibits herbal qualities of forest floor and leather. Great complex wine from an outstanding region!

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