How 'smoke taint' is affecting Australian winemakers – and what you can do to help

Smoke fills the sky from the back burning in the Nowra region of New South Wales 
How will the crisis impact on this year’s grape harvest? Credit: SAEED KHAN

Sometimes, strange pieces of information stay with you, and in all that I have read and seen about the Australian bushfire crisis, one that lodged with me was the news, reported by Ros Atkins on a BBC Outside Source bulletin, that smoke from the vast fires burning across Australia could be seen as far as 7,500 miles away, in Argentina and in Santiago, Chile.

Smoke is one of the invisible ways in which bushfires can cause winemakers problems – or, rather, make their wine unsaleable and thereby threaten their livelihood. It’s often said that grapes growing near gum trees have a tinge of eucalyptus that makes its way into the wine – a result, perhaps, of airborne aroma molecules growing into the grapes while they are in the vineyard and surviving intact through the winemaking process.

A similar thing can happen with the ash and heavy smoke from a bushfire. The fault is called “smoke taint”. I first heard of the problem several years ago when I was being driven around Margaret River by a winemaker who showed me some of the grey devastation that fires had caused the previous year, then mentioned almost in passing that he’d had to jettison several tanks of wine made from the fruit of vineyards that had been apparently unscathed.

The wine, apparently, tasted as if it had been on a caravan holiday with a posse of hardened smokers and come home without washing its hair or its clothes. This wasn’t just a matter of a wine-tasting professional curling his hypersensitive lip – the wine was completely undrinkable.

Of course, the issue of smoke taint is minor compared to the ecological and social devastation that has been witnessed in Australia over the past few weeks. I feel slightly guilty even drawing it to your attention – like Brigid Delaney, the Guardian writer, who wrote of her dystopian sense of profound discomfort on finding herself at a fancy wine-tasting beside Sydney Harbour, during which guests chugged on asthma inhalers as a “brown haze” obscured the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge and “ash flew from the sky, some of it landing in my drink”.

So in case this is taken the wrong way, let me say very plainly that I don’t raise it as a tetchy complaint about the quality of the wine in our feather-light Zaltos as the world around us burns and the four horsemen gallop into view. Rather to make the point that in places such as Adelaide Hills and Gippsland, some of those wine producers whose vineyards have apparently escaped untouched by fire still face an unreliable harvest.

In his book Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine, Jamie Goode, the wine writer and scientist, explains that smoke taint cannot always be tasted on the grapes in the vineyard, “but it emerges during the winemaking process. Affected wines taste ashy, smoky and phenolic”. Smoke-tainted grapes can’t be treated to remove the problem, either. 

Goode reports that, in one study that tried, affected grapes were washed in different solutions, including cold and warm water, milk and ethanol solutions, but this failed to remove the off-taste “because the taint compounds are present in the grapes’ skin tissue, not on their surface”.

It’s still too early to know how much of or to what extent Australia’s vineyard has been damaged by the megablazes, but Wine Australia – the body that represents Australian winemakers and growers around the world – estimates that (as at Jan 6) less than one per cent of Australia’s vineyard is affected. Wine Australia arrived at this figure by comparing the footprint of the fires in early January to its comprehensive satellite-based vineyard mapping. It said: “A review of fire maps suggests a maximum of around 1,500 hectares of vineyards fall within the fire-affected regions to date, and we know that not all the vineyards within fire zones were burnt.”

Beyond the statistics, of course, are individuals, families and companies whose losses have been devastating. The Adelaide Hills area has been particularly badly hit. Henschke, for instance, posted an image of its Lenswood vineyard on Instagram (above). It almost looks as if it has been taken through a monochrome filter. At a time of the year when the vines should be verdant, all you can see is scorched plants and fire-blackened earth. Others in the region have lost everything.

“Our message,” Wine Australia says, “is that Australia is hurting from the fires but we are open for business. We need donations to the relief funds, support for our emergency services and consumers to buy our wine and visit our regions. It is important to note that the fire season is not over, and our temporary relief may not last.”

If you want to help, you can make a donation to the Australian Red Cross. Or you can help in the way you might like the best, by buying and drinking Australian wine.

Wines of the week

Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2017, Adelaide Hills, Australia

(13%, Laithwaites, £32)

M3 chardonnay is a modern classic – the sort of wine that would appeal to burgundy lovers because it has poise, balance and tension. Made using wild yeast, with subtle oak. Gorgeous.

Bird in Hand Sparkling Pinot Noir NV, Adelaide Hills, Australia

(12.5%, Waitrose, £15.99)

A delicate pale pink sparkling wine, made from pinot noir. Spring is just round the corner, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I like to think so – and the wild cherry and strawberry scent of this wine would welcome a sunny day.

Craft 3 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2018, Australia

(13%, M&S, £10)

A modern Australian chardonnay that showcases the fresher, more zesty side of the grape  think fresh nectarine and Williams pear.