Winemakers in British Columbia – and worldwide – are dealing with wildfires and climate change, journalist Paloma Pacheco reports for Maisonnueve. Vineyards that survive fires face the issue of smoke-tainted grapes that leave an ashy taste in the wine. Now vintners and researchers are seeking solutions. Some vintners are leaning into the taint by aging slightly harmed wine in oak barrels. Others are handpicking grapes, sectioning vineyards to identify areas with the most smoke damage and using reverse osmosis to try to eliminate any smoky taste. While other impacts of wildfires and climate change are even worse, fires gravely threaten the wine industry, just like everything else in their path.
- Wildfires in British Columbia have forced vintners to adapt and innovate.
- The degree of smoke taint in a batch of wine may not be clear until it is bottled.
- Researchers are investigating wildfires’ impact on the wine industry, including how to prevent smoke from ruining the grapes.
Wildfires in British Columbia have forced vintners to adapt and innovate.
In August 2020, Blasted Church Vineyards was in the path of a wildfire in British Columbia. Head winemaker Evan Saunders knew that even if the fire spared the vines, the smoke could ruin his grapes. Changes in climate, from long droughts to mild winters and spring frosts, are affecting vineyards worldwide. Wildfires are forcing vintners in western Canada’s wine-making region to innovate.
For millennia, people have enjoyed wine and its mythology, but at its core, wine is an agricultural crop. For the more than 200 wineries in the “heart of West Coast Canadian wine country,” the Okanagan Valley, summers of record-breaking heat followed by wildfires have taken a heavy toll. In 2021å, the amount of acreage burned in British Columbia was the third highest on record.
“The wine and vines his team had invested countless hours in weren’t only at risk of destruction from the fire. The thick smoke creeping through the air, edging its way under the skins of acres of ripening grapes, posed a threat more insidious. Even if the vineyards were spared, it could bring a different, latent form of ruin.”
Smoke can leach “smoky compounds” known as volatile phenols into grapes on the vine. This can cause the wine from those grapes to taste ashy. Winemakers in British Columbia’s $2.8 billion-a-year wine and tourism industry are finding inventive ways to deal with the new reality of regular wildfires and harmful smoke.
The degree of smoke taint in a batch of wine may not be clear until it is bottled and aged.
Vintners send grapes to labs to be tested for smoke taint, but the tests can’t tell how badly the taint has affected the grapes or the wine that could be made from them. For white and rosé wines, Saunders presses whole grape clusters, although that can reduce the wine’s depth, which would be enhanced by more contact with the grapes’ skin. However, given the alternative of ruinous smoke taint, he says, it provides a “tenfold” payoff.
“Sometimes…fuller-bodied reds can mask arias of smoke, but often it’s still a gamble for winemakers.”
Making red wine from possibly smoke-tainted grapes is riskier than making white wine or rosé from those grapes because the wine-making process holds the wine in contact with the skin of the grapes for weeks. While the wine might seem fine during manufacturing, the smoky taste could “reemerge” after the vintner bottles the wine. Growers also are contending with warmer winter weather, which sends sap upward in the stems of the grape plants. When the cold returns and freezes the sap, it can cause “complete vine death,” as it has at some vineyards.
Researchers are investigating wildfires’ impact on the wine industry, including how to prevent smoke from ruining the grapes.
British Columbia’s vineyards are not alone in dealing with these issues. In 2020, the California wine industry lost $3.7 billion due to smoke taint and lost vineyards. Australian vineyards had an AUD 300 million loss in 2003, one of the earliest years when smoke taint became a problem. University of British Columbia researchers are trying to identify the tipping point at which smoke makes wine undrinkable, but many variables are at play. The industry also is working to establish real-time weather alerts for vineyards.
Although hopeful for lab results, some vintners are now hand-picking grapes to reduce the number of skins crushed in winemaking. Like other vintners, Saunders sections his vineyard, so he can separate grapes from low-lying fields where smoke may gather. Some vintners blend yields from different years to mitigate taint. The Echo Bay vineyard has used reverse osmosis to separate out the “smoke compounds.” Even though the process is expensive, practitioners can’t guarantee that taint won’t reappear after bottling.
“Perhaps smoke…will become…a true expression of the land and something that winemakers and drinkers embrace out of necessity.”
Although wine is not high on the list of the devastating worldwide costs of climate change, winemakers’ innovations and adaptations demonstrate their perseverance. The knowledge they are amassing may serve other industries, too.
The Hatch, a small winery in West Kelowna, BC, experimented with embracing the smokey taste, a form of “depressing optimism,” says vintner Mikayla Jones. The Hatch aimed to produce a wine with a hint of campfire but without the “ashtray” taste of badly tainted grapes. The winemaker aged tainted cabernet franc grapes in oak barrels for three years to merge the smoke with the oak’s tobacco and vanilla flavors. The wine, called The Smokeshow, drew fans and sold quickly. When journalist Paloma Pacheco tasted a similar wine, however, she found it evoked a “sense memory” of driving into the Okanagan region during fire season, “the taste of a valley caught at a crossroads, trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
About the Author
Vancouver-based journalist Paloma Pacheco writes for The Globe and Mail.