Okanagan wineries dealing with smoke taint in last year's grape harvest

Smoke taint in grapes

Casey Richardson

Some grape growers in the Okanagan Valley are noticing a heavy wildfire smoke taint in the 2021 vintage, with one South Okanagan winery already announcing they won’t be able to produce any wine at all.

Blue Mountain Winery, an estate near the last summer's Thomas Creek wildfire in Okanagan Falls, posted a notice to inform the wine club and loyal customers about their decision for the 2021 harvest this week.

“The winery’s estate vineyards were impacted by smoke contamination. While attempts to mitigate the impact of the contamination were tried the results did not meet the winery’s quality standards,” they said.

“We made the very difficult decision not to bottle the 2021 vintage simply because we were not willing to compromise the reputation that we have worked tirelessly to establish over the past three decades.”

The winery added that the vines themselves were not affected and they are confident that 2022 will be a better year.

While it is a devastating loss for a winery to lose their entire crop to smoke taint, this issue is not uncommon. The decision to use the grapes will come down to how impacted they are.

“It would be somewhat foolish to think that smoke taint is not going to be an issue for, I would say, the majority of the wineries in Okanagan Valley just based on the year,” said Amy Paynter, winemaker at Liquidity wines, which Okanagan Falls vineyard is also located close to a wildfire site.

“There are definitely some batches that are a little bit smoky but we’re working through different procedures and trying a bunch of different things in the winery to try and mitigate that as well.”

The small amount of taint won’t be affecting Liquidity's vintage this year, thanks in part to also growing grapes in Naramata and further south.

Smoke taint is the influence of smoky flavour that can occur when the particles from wildfire smoke land on grapes. When the grapes are ripening and developing a wax coating, the particles can permeate the grapes and bind with the sugars.

Richard Kanazawa, winemaker for Bench 1775, has seen a hint of smoke taint pop up in their grapes over the past two years.

“There's a little bit of hints of it, but nothing offensive, thank goodness. Because there's nothing like doing all that hard work and then the final product is just filled with a high concentration of smoke taint,” he explained.

“Sometimes it's weeks after fermentation that your wine that smelled like strawberries and rhubarb smells like an ashtray. It can happen overnight.”

Both winemakers said when the heavy smoke taint is there, there’s not much to be done to salvage it.

“Everyone that goes through this, there is wine that you can't blend away, or you can't definitely hide that. It's right up front and in your face and those tanks ended up just sitting around or being poured down the drain,” Kanazawa said.

“There is a certain line where you can't cross, because it's just not good for you, for your winemaking, your reputation and for the valley.”

“You definitely do have to make the best decisions based on the quality of the wine and for the brand. I actually really respect Blue Mountain's decision not to bottle anything. It's a huge call but it's a huge testament to their commitment to quality that they're not doing anything,” Paynter added.

A Kelowna-based lab that performs smoke taint analysis has been helping winemakers spot it early.

Supra Research and Development Laboratory manager Ryan Hayward explained that they will take samples from wineries through all the stages of development and test for the compounds present with smoke taint.

“We will then test it for both the smoke taint markers, and issue reports back to them. So along with that, we will give some sort of guidance level of what kind of risks this may pose to the finish line in the end,” he shared.

“By measuring the bound compounds, we may be able to give more light to whether or not more of these compounds will come out into the wine over the fermentation time.”

Often winemakers are left to notice the flavour and smell that is developed during the grape's fermentation to truly tell if the wine has been tainted.

The lab began testing in 2014, becoming more prominent in smoke taint-specific studies in 2018 and 2019. The lab was utilized heavily in 2020 for wineries in California and saw a major uptick last year with major wineries submitting samples from the Okanagan and Ontario.

Wine samples were also sent in earlier to the lab in the summer, as the season's wildfire began early. Several dozen different wineries sent in a couple thousand samples.

“We saw more early testing of these compounds than we would in, say, another year where the smoke exposure may not happen until just near harvest,” Hayward said, adding that a large percentage of the wine submitted showed a higher risk of smoke taint.

The grapes that were affected weren’t necessarily the ones closest to the wildfires either.

“We saw differences depending on where the smoke was headed.”

Moving forward, Hayward hopes to see more wineries submit grapes to the database in good or bad years, to really build a profile on how wines progress.

“The kind of funny thing with testing is that a lot of people may not seek out testing until they fear there's a problem,” he said.

“We really want to promote this building of a database. We have a close relationship with the research group at UBC Okanagan as well, and to work on just building more and more knowledge around the area. So the more data the better.”

Winemakers will head forward into the next season preparing their grapes as best as possible, and hoping to avoid smoke taint.

"There's so many places that are going through the same thing, you know, Australia, California. It's just become a worldwide thing where there's fires catching on in the summer, and everybody's dealing with it in their own way," Kanazawa said.

“We're always going to be super hyper-vigilant of fire risk. I think pretty much all wineries are in the Okanagan,” Paynter added.

“We're not feeling pessimistic or anything like that. We're gonna go into this year hoping that we don't have smoke and everything works out fine."

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