What is Smoke Taint and how does it affect wines with Anita Oberholster UC Davis California


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Welcome to the first episode of the second season of the Looking Into Wine Podcast, is so good to be back - Mattia
Today’s guest is the Associate Specialist in Cooperative Extension in Enology for the University of California UC Davis Anita Oberholster.
Today she is here to spotlight the incredibly growing concern that is Smoke taint. In recent years she has focused her attention on Smoke Taint leading field and laboratory research on the topic and working with international researchers to fight this catching problem.
In 2020 alone a series of wildfires ravaged parts of Northern California, blanketing much of the West Coast with smoke. This came on the heels of major fire events during the previous three years that burned nearly 3.8 million acres in California alone. Meanwhile, Australia suffered devastating fires in 2019 and 2020 that affected Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. And this year 2021 fires are sprawling around the world from California to France and parts of southern Europe.
As the wine world acclimates to changes in weather patterns, the term “fire season” has become akin to hail in Burgundy and bone-chilling winters in Germany. Like harvests ruined by cold, wet, and disease, harvests in fire riddled regions face unique challenges Smoke Taint – what it is and how it affects grapes and wine.
Smoke taint is one such adulteration. When wildfires strike, the residue of the smoke can settle on grapevines, leaving a film of volatile phenolic compounds. Where many wines flavours are derived from grapes’ phenolics, these compounds are unwelcome intruders. And they infiltrate the grape skin, forming bonds with the sugars just inside the skins. These resulting molecules are called glycosides.
The compounds in smoke primarily responsible for the taint are the free volatile phenols that are produced when the wood is burnt. These can be absorbed directly by grapes and can bind to grape sugars to give glycosides that have no smoky aroma.
Often these glycosides are described as smoke taint precursors. During fermentation (and also over time in barrel or bottle) these glycosides can break apart, releasing the volatile phenols into the must or wine, and allowing the smoky flavour to be perceived. These glycosides can also release the volatile phenols in the mouth during the drinking of wine, which may contribute to the perception of smoke taint.
As promised the here are the links to further readings:
California UC Davis
Australia Wine Institute
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26 episode