A hazy harvest?

It's too early to tell whether wine grapes will taste better with smoke
Smoke hangs over Del Rio Vineyards and Winery Saturday in Gold Hill. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

Open a bottle of cabernet sauvignon from the Rogue Valley's 2009 vintage. Does it taste like black current, spice and tobacco?

If so, those flavors came from the grapes and toasted oak barrels, not from the smoke that hung in the air for a week before harvest.

Science of smoke on grapes

Climatologist Gregory Jones in Southern Oregon University's Department of Environmental Studies has studied wine grapes around the world. He's been monitoring the region's smoky conditions and offers this timeline:

Summer 2013: Warm, dry conditions.

July 26: Dry lightning sparks fires and smoke settles over inter-mountain valleys due to normal summer high pressure and inversions.

Late July: The Applegate, Illinois and Rogue valleys see more smoke than the Umpqua Valley because of north-to-south air flow.

Now: Fires in isolated areas are hard to contain when vineyards are most susceptible.

Fall: October rains may have to snuff out fires.

Wine and smoke, you see, have a complex relationship.

Sooty air can change wine, but it takes time. As of now, two weeks after lightning started five major wildfires in southwestern Oregon, the region's grapes haven't been kissed deeply with smoky lips — yet.

There have been short-term impacts. In vineyards from Ashland to the Applegate, unpredictable conditions are forcing weddings, concerts and fundraisers indoors.

And vineyard crews are suffering from burning eyes and that logy feeling from exposure to the smoke.

Last week, vineyard manager Chris Hubert of OVS Results Partners sent workers home under a pall of smoke. They are now back, tucking in grapevines but safely wearing respirators.

As for longer impact, winemakers and grape growers are searching through the gray air for good news.

If the smoke scatters soon, it might have helped enhance the flavor of the wine grapes. If the fires get worse, no one wants to predict the outcome.

"We would be happy to see the smoke go away, but I think it will have a positive effect on the grapes unless there is persistent smoke and more fires," says Don Moore of South Stage Cellars, whose family owns 300 acres of grapevines from Talent to Jacksonville.

Until now, grapes were ripening two weeks earlier than past years.

"Reducing the sun right now will keep the sugar levels low and add unique characteristics and thorough ripening to the flavor," says Moore.

Jean-Michel Jussiaume, the longtime winemaker at Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill, says Oregon wineries will have to deal with some telltale signs of smoke, due to the length, timing and size of the fires.

But, he adds, no one will know the complete story until harvest and a few years after the wine has developed.

"As I approach each harvest, I will be patient and make the best of what nature has to offer," he says.

As viticulture experts calmly wait out the hanging haze, they are explaining that there are two types of references to smoke when it comes to a glass of wine.

The classic cigar smoke or leather aromas come from the process of aging wine in oak barrels.

Smoke-tainted grapes, which the Rogue Valley has never experienced, can retain unforgiving odors of ashtray, screeching rubber tires, disinfectant or charred meat.

"Southern Oregon has had fires and smoke events before with little to no smoke issues in wines," says Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and research climatologist who has spent time with the world's foremost authorities studying smoke's effect on wine.

"There is no reason to think that this year is any different," he says.

Wildfires swept through Southern Oregon in September 2009 and smoke settled for about a week over ripening grapes. But it wasn't heavy and it didn't stay long enough to make a significant impact.

In 2002, the Biscuit fire blazed nearly 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest and left a lingering mark on the landscape.

Winemakers hoped the constant layer of smoke and haze in August and September would allow for even ripening to the clusters.

Vintner Donna Devine pressed smoke-affected cabernet sauvignon grapes grown at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley and hoped for the best.

Troon's current winemaker, Herb Quady, then cellared the wine and when it was ready to be released, the winery decided to call attention to its blazing past. Its name: Biscuit Fire Reserve.

The label had red flames in the background. It's now a collector's item, once fetching $700 a bottle. Some of the proceeds from that year were given to firefighters, a tradition that Troon continues.

Wine appreciator Kim Hosford, 48, of Talent says that the Troon Biscuit Fire cabernet was one of the most memorable wines she has tasted.

"It was the summer of 2006 and I went winetasting with a group," says Hosford. "The Troon staff told us about this wine and when we tasted it, it had a distinctly smoky flavor but not overwhelming. The smoke added another layer of complexity. We bought a few bottles and drank them."

Grape grower Don Moore remembers selling out of South Stage Cellars' 2002 syrah by winemaker Linda Donovan because of the lightly smoked taste.

Timing and talent, experts agree, are everything.

Grapevines are most susceptible to smoke compounds from veraison through harvest, says Del Rio's winemaker Jussiaume. Veraison, which is occurring now, is when the grapes start to get soft and change color.

Fire particles are absorbed by the plant and accumulate onto the grape skin, but not the pulp. If necessary, smoke damage can be reduced or avoided by limiting the juice's contact with the skins.

But, says Jussiaume, red grape skins deliver color and tasty tannin, and some of the molecules that are responsible for the smoke taint are identical to ones in oaked wine and found naturally in some grape varieties.

"The difference is their concentration," he says. "That is why the influence of smoke, in the best case, can also participate in adding to a wine's complexity."

Winemaker Quady is also taking a wait-and-see approach.

"While it's certain that the smoke will have some effect on the character of the vintage, the type and magnitude of the effect remain to be seen," he says. "Let's see what it's like at the end of August. If we're still wearing respirators, then we'll have an idea."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com

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