Fire and Wine: Part 2

From John, November 5th, 2020

On November 5th, we pressed off our last red wine fermenter (the Nebbiolo). So it is now time to report on what we see in the cellar from the 2020 vintage.

To briefly recap, after the smoke subsided, we delayed picking until 2 significant rain events were behind us. At that point we had no idea what to expect, but the drenching rain seemed to have removed all soot and ash from the surface of the grapes.

In order to minimize possible smoke contamination from the skins, fermentations of the red fruit were conducted with very gentle techniques to allow the whole berries that come out of our de-stemmer to remain mostly intact. The white fruit was pressed as whole clusters on a more gentle press cycle than previous years. While fermentations smelled rather normal, only in our imaginations did we smell smoke taint. That is because, rather insidiously, volatile phenols from smoke form chemical linkages with grape sugars in the juice (non-volatile glycosides) which are odorless. Therefore, assuming the fruit is not covered with soot,  aromas of smoke taint will not typically show themselves until the end of the fermentations when the sugars have been consumed by the yeast and the volatile smoke phenols are released.

It is only now that we can truly assess the situation at Cameron. At this point, it appears that we have dodged the bullet. Most of our finished wines smell normal (which for Pinot noir means some merde, salumi, mushrooms and dark cherries and for the whites a bit of grapefruit rind, pears and yeast). Even barrels that may perhaps show a trace of smoke should recover because these smoky aromas will likely integrate into the wine rather seamlessly,  much like the smoke from barrel toast (which, incidentally, is composed of the same phenols).  The other factor in our favor is that the 2020 vintage produced extremely small berried clusters (our yield was less than one ton per acre).  Small clusters will typically produce very aromatically intense wines  which will mask other subtleties in the wine.

Clearly smoke taint is real and only the luck of the gods (1) put us in a location further from the fires and the intensity of their smoke and (2) brought us significant rain to wash the fruit clean of soot. Our hearts go out to all of those growers and wineries who were more significantly affected.

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