Smoke looms over the vineyard at 50th Parallel Winery in Lake Country //Sydney Morton photo

Smoke looming in Okanagan could affect wine

Smoke taint could sour this years vintages if ash falls on grapes

The smoke has dropped a sepia curtain over the Okanagan, leaving many to wonder what will happen with the valley’s many agricultural offerings.

“It’s a little too early to tell, the prime susceptibility for the grapes is just coming around for most varietals, depending on where the vineyard is in the Okanagan,” UBC Okanagan PhD student Matt Noestheden said about how smoke could affect wine. “The smoke we have seen up to date is a concern but we don’t have a definitive way to find out if the smoke will hurt this year’s vintage.”

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Smoke taint can effect the wine depending on the susceptibility of the grapes. Any wine where the skin is kept on during the wine making process is more likely to be left with a smoky or an ashy taste. The molecule in the grape skin called glyoxal absorbs the ash or heavy smoke that falls onto the grape berry.

The smoky skies will delay harvest since the vines are not receiving direct sunlight to ripen. Noestheden says some vintners are nervous and others embrace the smoky scent and taste in their wine, as a part of the Okanagan terroir.

Different winemaking strategies including reverse osmosis, or blending previous vintages along with the smoke tainted ones will allow wineries to salvage their harvests. Noestheden says that techniques such as aging in concrete or stainless steel could potentially help the situation instead of using barrels that can add a charred smoke taste and exacerbate the process.

“The issue really comes in a strong smoke tasting wine where you end up getting a heavy ash flavour. A lot of people like a bit of smoke in their wine and a red that was aged in a strong oak barrel may taste a little smoky and add value but the ash is an off-putting point in wine,” Noestheden said.

Gordon Fitzpatrick, president of Fitzpatrick Wines, is not concerned about smoke taint at his winery just yet. Previously, Fitzpatrick owned Cedar Creek Winery when it burned in the 2003 Kelowna wildfires, and has lost vintages of wine in the past due to smoke taint.

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“Last year we had this smoke haze and the only impact it had was that it delayed the ripening a bit,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t anticipate any issue this year, but I always get nervous about saying anything definitely before the wildfires are over.”

The second-hand smoke from B.C. and Washington State are not leaving ash on the grapes this year which leaves Fitzpatrick with an optimistic approach to this year’s harvest.

Other fruit growers are also optimistic.

Pindar Dhaliwal, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, said that in some ways the smoke has been beneficial for valley orchards, especially the apples now ripening.

“It did protect the apples from any sunburn. The less intense sunlight didn’t hurt in that sense,” said Dhaliwal. “We had about 10 to 11 days of smoky weather, that kept the heat down from the predicted 40 C weather, so that helped out in that sense.”

Likewise, he said the less intense sunlight hasn’t had much of an effect on the fruit, except to slow down ripening.

The lack of cooler weather at night, as the blanket of smoke keeps the hot weather in, does have an effect on apples.

“The apples need cooler weather at night to trigger that redness,” said Dhaliwal, explaining they would like to see temperatures dipping down into the 10 to 15 C range overnight.

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