As Napa and Sonoma battle the Glass Fire, one month after the LNU Lightning Complex blazed through the region, area winemakers whose grapes survived are examining the wildfires’ effects. Some are forgoing the 2020 vintage entirely due to damaged facilities or grapes. Others are testing to determine if their fruit suffers from smoke taint, the ashy taste that results from grapes exposed to smoke.
Smoke taint is now an increasing global problem for winemakers, as climate change has caused wildfires to grow in severity throughout many of the world’s wine regions. There are techniques and treatments to remove it, but they are often expensive. It can also be difficult to predict their effectiveness, says Anita Oberholster, enology specialist in the department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis.
“[Any] kind of treatment does unfortunately impact the overall quality of the wine, in some way,” she says.
But a distiller with a background in wine, and a winemaker with a background in spirits, have devised methods to make spirits from smoke-tainted grapes in Australia, and created an alternative to dumping smoke-damaged fruit. While this might all sound like cold comfort for those currently faced with devastating wildfires, it also presents an interesting case study as winemakers continue to adapt to climate change.
Smoke to spirits
Trynt Xavier, senior distiller at Archie Rose, a spirits company in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, has a background in wine science. After a brutal wildfire season last year burnt around 3,000 acres of vines, acquaintances in the industry were looking for ideas to utilize unharvested smoke-affected grapes that couldn’t be made into wine. Distillation came into the discussion, and Xavier got the greenlight from his company to experiment.
They worked with five growers and four wineries in the Hunter Valley to procure 50,000 liters of wine made from Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“At this point, we didn’t know how much smoke taint we had, so we tried to develop a procedure that would get rid of as much as possible,” he says.
Because chemical compounds have different weights and volatilities, Xavier and his team developed distillation parameters to separate the compounds harboring the smokiness from those they wished to keep. They developed very close cuts—the several separations of distillate during the distillation run—and were able to create a brighter product with fewer of the smoky compounds.
The response from the wine community and the public was enthusiastic, according to Xavier. A prerelease of eau de vie made from the grapes, called Hunter Valley Shiraz Spirit, was priced at $100AUS (approximately $73) and sold out almost immediately. The brandy being produced from this early spirit, which is currently being aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, will be ready in about three to four years.
“The spirit tells us what to do,” says Xavier. “You have to listen to the product.”
Bright business through communal effort
In Tasmania, Robert Patterson, winemaker and owner of Hartzview Vineyard in Gardners Bay, went through a similar process after an intense bushfire season in 2019. He had already been making fortified wines and liqueurs, along with traditional Pinot Noir.
Patterson looked to Cognac and Armagnac for inspiration. The Australian Wine Research Institute, the world’s preeminent authority on smoke taint, and Hobart’s Vintessential Laboratories, both contributed to testing every step of the way.
Patterson began his experiments with a fortified wine. “The juice tasted terrible, like an ashtray,” he says.
He then put it through a stripping run, the first of two basic distillation steps, which removes undesirable elements like methanol. However, both he and the lab tests still detected the presence of smoke taint. But after the second step, called a spirit run, all traces were removed, and no smoke was detected by either labs or Patterson himself.
The brandy is being aged for three years in Limousin oak barrels, the same used to age Cognac and Armagnac. “So far, so good,” says Patterson. “It’s smoke-taint free and progressing nicely.”
Oberholster says making brandies and eau de vie from smoke-tainted grapes is “a cool idea” and holds potential for grapes that have become undesirable for winemaking. “I think you could make it economically viable for all, but it will mean that it’s almost like a group project,” she says.
Patterson agrees. His spirit will be priced somewhere in the range of $200AUS to $450AUS (approximately $146 to $320) for 750ml, and if successful, will make a good argument for its viability as a communal business endeavour. A winemaker could send juice to a distiller who could do the two runs, and then return the spirit to the winemaker, who could barrel age it.
Distillers he knows in Tasmania are already interested. “It could be upscaled quite significantly,” says Patterson. He wants to do some trials with different fruits, including a cherry crop that was also affected by the bushfires.
For Archie Rose, to make spirits from smoke-tainted grapes was rooted in helping the wine community. The company won’t likely be adding either spirit to its product line, says Xavier, but they’re happy to share the distillation techniques they developed. “It’ll be great for other people to see that this is something that can be done with smoke-tainted grapes.”