UBC researchers protect wine grapes from smoke-taint

Saying no to smoky wine

UBC Okanagan researchers have found a way to protect wine grapes from tasting smoky.

Protecting crops from the undesirable effects of wildfire smoke exposure is a problem facing grape-growers internationally, says UBC Okanagan assistant professor in chemistry Wesley Zandberg.

“It’s definitely one of, if not the biggest concern wine-making communities are facing today.

“When you look at the catastrophic wildfire seasons California and the Okanagan Valley have experienced in recent years, and the season Australia is experiencing now, I don’t think a solution can come quickly enough. Winemakers are under a lot of pressure to find a way to protect their crops.” 

Zandberg and his team of researchers tested multiple substances, and discovered a common agricultural spray may be the answer. 

The spray composed of phospholipids was applied to wine grapes one week before exposing them to simulated forest fire smoke.

They found the spray significantly reduced the levels of volatile phenols, which are flavoured compounds present in smoke that may be absorbed into ripening grapes.

“The results are encouraging,” says Zandberg. “This strategy has shown potential in its ability to protect crops.”

“Many grape-growers don’t have the means to pay to test their crops, so since smoke-taint can’t be reliably detected until grapes are fermented, producers have to wait weeks to know whether their plants are suitable or not. Meanwhile, costs and risks mount as their crops sit on the vine.”

Zandberg says smoke-tainted crops can have a more devastating effect for some wine producers than others.

“A lot of wineries in the Okanagan Valley only use local grapes, so they don’t have the option of purchasing grapes from Washington or Oregon, as they wouldn’t be considered local. When your whole business model is fermenting what you produce, you’re in big trouble if your grapes are tainted.”

The study was published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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