Sunday, February 21, 2010

BUYER BEWARE - Smoke Taint in Wine - WARNING

I wanted to give everyone a heads up on the next wave of 2008 wines coming out of Northern California, particularly Pinot Noir.  If you are not a wine geek or in the wine business you probably do not know this but much of the Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, minimal parts of the Russian River and most of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County in 2008 contain obvious amounts of "smoke taint".  Many vineyards were in the path of some serious fires and the smoke from those fires engulfed vineyards in some cases for 10 days.  Right now the 2007 Bordeaux varietals are entering the market and are outstanding so buy away on 2007.  Napa has had its best year in 2007 since 1997 for Cabernet Sauvignon based wines.  2007 was great for Pinot Noir, but most of those were released last year and the new wave of Pinot Noir this year are the 2008s and may be in big trouble.

At first most thought all was fine.  The fruit came in smelling and tasting "smoke free".  The problem was that the taint did not appear physically until after fermentation of the wine from juice.  Research later found that the smoke taint is initially absorbed into the vine's system through the leaves, not the roots or the grape itself as many has suspected.  The worst possible time for smoke to be absorbed in a grape vine is during verasion since that is when the berries expand the most and take in the most nutrients from the vine's leaves (sunlight) and roots (water & nutrients).  Ash from the fires on the grape clusters does not affect the quality of the grapes either.  These fires occurred in July, at the end of or in the middle of verasion for many vines.  At the point of picking, sorting and crushing, the only way one can know if there is smoke taint in the grape is to run a laboratory test to check for a few of the trace compounds that cause smoke taint.

This happened in Australia two years ago and wreaked havoc on those wines.  Australia was the first modern experimentation on how to get the smoke taint out of wine.  However, from my research I feel that the wine glut in Australia caused most of the "smoke taint" problem to go by the wayside as everyone from the government to growers say there is too much wine already in Australia.  I have read recently the government is asking grape growers to uproot vines as there is just too much wine and not enough demand from customers.  The glut is damaging the image of Australian wine.  I guess the train of thought there was who needs more wine, let alone smoke tainted wine?  In the end they were not able to find an adequate solution and many just declassified the worst stuff and sold it off on the bulk market.  The best results came from reverse osmosis, but that also takes out other components inherent in wine and ultimately change more than what the process is intended to do.  It is also thought that varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are less susceptible to smoke taint than Pinot Noir, which is a vacuum for the terroir it resides in.  Sangiovese is thought to be very susceptible to smoke taint as well, but not much of that is grown in the regions most effected by forest fire smoke, let alone in all of California.

In Sonoma no one is for sure what to expect, but early results seem to point in a few directions so do your research and be careful.  Some experimentation has made the smoke problem worse or entirely stripped the wine of not only the smoke, but the fruit and other delicate nuances hard filtering can strip from a wine.  The professional verdict is still out as many critics have yet to release significant tasting notes for any of the 2008 California Pinot Noir wines from Northern California.  Robert Parker's Wine Advocate will release its scores this week on the most recent wines of Sonoma County, which will include many 2008 Pinot Noir.  It is thought many of the better names in the business will declassify the worst of the tainted wines and sell them off to the bulk wine market for sale as innocuous $7-10 bottles.  Be careful, a new label in 2008 at a rock bottom price may not be the best thing to reach for.  If you must, buy one and see how you like it and if the coast is clear of smoke taint, back up the truck.

Last Friday I was at a wine bar and saw a 2008 Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.  Since the smoke taint issue was such a big story of late I had to try it for myself.  I asked to try the Hirsch Vineyards "Bohans-Dillon" 2008 Pinot Noir.  From the first whiff, it smelled like a BBQ pit in the middle of a July heat wave.  Obnoxious aromas of smoke and burnt cedar wafted from the glass with what little fruit was left in the wine.  The palate was a little better, not as offensive as the bbq-bouquet!

This is just a warning.  Not all Pinot Noir from California in 2008 is tainted with flavors and aromas of smoke.  DO YOUR RESEARCH before you buy any Pinot Noir from 2008 from Northern California, especially Mendocino and the Sonoma Coast.  Unless you like your wine to overtly smell like smoke, wood and barbecue, this is a vintage to pass on or at the most be extremely selective.


1 comment:

  1. The "smoke" issue really didn't affect Napa Valley much at all. I know that here at Staglin Family Vineyard, we had no issue as I suspect is true with many of our neighbors. It should be an interesting vintage with all the "hype" about the 2007's, many good 2008's will likely get overlooked. Garen


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