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Where there's smoke, there's taint (maybe)

Posted By Aaron Mandel, AWS Director of Education , Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Taint (maybe)


With the recent fires in Northern California, there has been a lot of concern about smoke taint in wines and what the wineries can do about the problem. So, I thought a brief discussion of smoke taint might be in order.


First, the problem of smoke taint in 2017 wines is being overblown. Many of the grapes in the Napa and Sonoma vineyards had already been picked. Even those vineyard that still had grapes waiting to be picked will not necessarily have problems with smoke taint. Smoke composition, concentration, duration of exposure and variety all play a part in smoke taint.


How does taint get into the grape?


So how does some taint enter the grape? Most of the smoke taint enters the berries through the cuticles. Basically, through the waxy layer on the skin of the grape. While the volatiles that give the taint may also enter the vine through the leaves, studies show that the movement of the smoke taint through the vine itself is very slow. The closer to harvest the grapes are to ripening, the greater the risk of smoke taint. Because the smoke taint enters through the cuticle, washing the grapes before crush does little good.


Why is it hard to detect early?


The actual compounds in smoke taint are glycosides. This means that the volatile aromatics- those you can smell- are connected to sugar molecules. Since they are bound to sugars, the volatile aromas are stuck in the juice they are not wafting about the air waiting for you to pick up their smell.  But the sugar bond with the volatiles can be broken. This may take place during fermentation, malolactic or during maturation. When the sugar bond is broke, the aromatics are freed.  When the wine is drunk, further breakage in the bonds may occur, increasing the sensation of smoke taint. This is the reason that smoke taint can be so difficult to assess. You pick the grapes, do the crush and everything smells just fine- you escaped. Then you ferment the grapes and things start getting funky.


Wineries are currently sending out grapes for testing to determine whether their grapes will suffer smoke taint. This is often done by performing small batch fermentations with grape clusters taken from various parts of a vineyard and then performing an analysis to check on the presence of the volatile compounds that cause smoke taint.


What if the grapes have smoke taint?


So, what can the wineries do if they have smoke tainted fruit or believe there is a risk of taint?
One thing is to avoid the breaking of the skins as long as possible. The skins have many volatiles in them so limited contact might help. Hand harvesting the grapes can minimize breaking of skins as long as possible and, of course, shorter maceration can help. Whole bunch pressing and pressing in fractions also can assist.


Of course, these methods are best used with white wines where skin contact may not be required. But what about red wines?  If the grapes have smoke taint, there is not a lot that can be done. Some wineries use reverse osmosis to remove smoke taint, but this method is said to only be a temporary fix and the smoke taint returns over time. Flash détente can also be used, since it removes volatile aromas and may remove some smoke taint. But Flash Détente is not 100% effective. It may remove the taint below the detection threshold of approximately 5-6 ppm if the level of smoke taint is slightly over that amount but it is not going to take a 50-ppm smoke taint level and lower it to 3. Even then, it is difficult to say what aromatic precursors in the wine may react with the smoke taint volatiles making the taint detectable at lower levels.


In the end, there is little that can be done with badly tainted grapes. Some “smoky” wines have been successfully marketed with smoke tainted grapes in the past for barbeques but the market for such wines would seem to be limited. Heavily charred oak barrels can also be used to mask the aromas, but the masking can only go so far.


At this early stage, it is impossible to say if there will be any real problem with smoke taint from the Northern California fires. I expect that a few vineyards will have smoke taint, but that the overall impact from taint will be relatively small. Fortunately, smoke taint is not something which carries over from year to year, so 2018 so not be effected from this year’s fires.


The larger concern is the effect on those working in the region. While most wineries escaped damage from the fires, whole neighborhoods were burned down. Affordable housing in Napa and Sonoma was already in short supply. The fires took lives, homes and property. The American Wine Society is raising money to help those affected by the fires. Please consider donating to the cause. In addition, please consider visiting the region. Many of the businesses in Northern California depend upon tourists. The fires cut tourism dramatically. Visiting for a few days will help those in the region get back on their feet.

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Tags:  American Wine Society  smoke taint  Wine  wine tasting 

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A look back at the 49th Annual AWS Conference

Posted By Neal Hulkower , Sunday, July 30, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, July 19, 2017


The American Wine Society (AWS) is the largest consumer based wine education organization in North America.  Dr. Konstantin Frank, a pioneering vinifera producer in New York’s Finger Lakes region, led its formation in late 1967.  It now boasts 165 chapters in 36 states and the District of Columbia including one based in Salem, Oregon.  AWS membership is approaching 6,000 and includes the entire spectrum from novice tasters to wine educators to competition judges to grape growers to amateur and commercial winemakers, supporting the characterization of “compleatness.”  While many chapters host tastings throughout the year, the main event is the annual National Conference.  From 3 to 5 November 2016, about 430 members gathered at the Hilton in Costa Mesa, CA, to learn, taste, and mingle.


As a first time attendee to a conference, I sat in on an orientation session.  Three panels of three first timers were invited to play “Who Wants to be an Oenologist?”  Multiple choice questions focused on the early history of the society, factoids about the California wine industry, and conference specific procedures.  I learned that Dr. Frank threatened to quit AWS because of its emphasis on hybrid grapes.


The Welcome Reception highlighted wines from Temecula, the nearest wine growing region to the meeting, as well as from Santa Barbara Winery. Buffets provisioned tasters sufficiently to serve as dinner.  Afterward, we adjourned to the hospitality suite to sample wines from North Carolina, Tennessee, and New York.


At registration, we were asked to rank our top three choices for sessions in each of seven periods, three one day and four the next.  I was assigned to all of my first choices.  Sharron McCarthy, Vice President of Wine Education for Castello Banfi, oversaw “An Extraordinary Tuscan Experience.”  The eight Banfi wines we tasted ranged from a refreshing 2015 Vermentino to a classy but still young Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.



As a volunteer, I was assigned to be room captain for the session “Virginia Wine Today” and had the pleasure of introducing the presenter, Richard Leahy.  Leahy is the author of the most authoritative exposition on wines of the Old Dominion, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, now in its second edition. In 2012, he was my counterpart on the East Coast during our bicoastal simultaneous tasting of Virginia and Southern Oregon viogniers and cabernet francs.  The results appeared in the December 2012 issue of Oregon Wine Press.   Leahy tasted us through two whites and two reds to show how far Virginia has come.  While all were well made and enjoyable, my “oh yes” choice was the 2013 Barboursville Octagon, a beautifully textured Bordeaux blend.  “Want some,” I noted.


In “Nose to Nose:  Cognac vs. Armagnac,” Portland, Oregon based Hoke Harden (pictured  below), “the spirits and wine professor,” expounded on the differences between the two brandies.  We were presented with four examples of each.   A complex, bright Jean Fillioux Cep d’Or 1er Cru Grande Champagne, a “grower cognac,” earned a “yum yes.”  The supremely smooth and refined Jerome Delord Bas Armagnac 1981, bottled in 2011, earned an “oh yes” and nearly brought on tears of overwhelming admiration.  I did get some.


 On Friday evening, we assembled for the Showcase of Wine to sample products from several countries including Spain, Mexico, France, and the US.  Heavy appetizers served as dinner.  Table hopping facilitated mingling.


As an old fan of German Rieslings, I was particularly eager to attend “The New Classification of German Wines – the VDP Classification” led by Annette Schiller with comments from her husband, Christian.  The DC-based couple lead wine tours in Germany and France.  Since 1984, the Verband Deutscher Prädikats- und Qualitätsweingüter e.V. (VDP) has been developing a quality-based classification based on the Burgundy model to correct the mess caused by the 1971 law that diluted the prestige of many of the famous vineyards.  Two of the six lovely wines poured were produced by Dr. Ernst Loosen who, in addition to owning a facility in the Mosel region, collaborates in Oregon with Jay Somers of J. Christopher and in Washington with Chateau Ste. Michelle. 


“The State of Red Wines in the American Rhone Nation” was discussed and illustrated by six California producers. Randall Grahm poured his 2009 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant which displayed an amusing aroma and flavors showing nascent wisdom.  This wine is typically fermented with 50 to 60% whole clusters that are dried for a few days to ensure the stems lignify.  A drinkable, untypical 2012 Tercero Mourvedre showed very nicely.


Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery, known for its zinfandel, guided “Exploring the ‘90s in Magnums.” He shared the 1994, 1995, and 1997 bottlings from Dickerson Vineyard, planted to 100% zinfandel in 1920, and the Old Hill vineyard, planted around 1885 to a mix of at least 27 varieties with about 68% zinfandel.  The wines made from Old Hill, especially the 1995, showed considerable youthfulness.


The final session, “Colorado’s High Elevation Wines, The Taste from the Top,” gave Doug Caskey, executive director at Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, the chance to pour outside the grape.  We were served a fragrant hard cider from a can and a sweet, pretty mead along with one hybrid and three vinifera examples.


A sparkling breakfast the first day and two lunches featured wine, as well.  The noontime meal on Saturday showcased noteworthy wines from Empordá, a region in Catalonia, Spain.  The 2015 Vinyes dels Aspres, Blanc dels Aspres, 60% Grenache Blanc, 40% Grenache Gris, earned a “yes.”  A novel Mas Llunes, Garnatxa Solera extended my experience with this versatile grape to the realm of dessert.  The Grand Banquet at which Peter Mondavi, Jr. accepted the Award of Merit for his late father, Peter Sr., concluded the conference on Saturday evening. 


The egalitarian nature of AWS and the welcoming spirit of its long time members are two of this “most compleat” society’s greatest assets.   Where else can an oenophile, budding or already blossomed, taste wines with experts from across the globe?  Where else can amateur and commercial winemakers share pointers?    For me, though, the seven sessions I attended were the best reason to participate in the National Conference.  The range and quality of the beverages and the information shared by the presenters kept this long time taster enticed, engaged, and even educated.  Sound good? From 2 to 4 November 2017, the society celebrates its 50th anniversary at its National Convention at Kalahari in Pocono Manor, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit http://www.americanwinesociety.org/.


Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Oregon.  His wine writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications including the Journal of Wine Research, the Journal of Wine Economics, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine.  He can occasionally be found pouring quintessential Pinot noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.

Tags:  American Wine Society  Armagnac  Cognac  Hoke Harden  Riesling  Tuscan wines  Virginia wines  Wine  Wine Tasting  Zinfandel 

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New World vs. New World; conflict or complement?

Posted By Rick's Grape Skinny, Monday, July 3, 2017
Updated: Monday, June 19, 2017



In a nutshell, the fundamental difference between Old World and New World wines is one of geography. Old World wines hail from Europe – France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal principally, while New World wines are those that quite literally come from anywhere and everywhere else. That said however, when one is speaking of New World wines, they’re typically talking about wines from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.



                  Is That All There Is?

 No, that’s not all there is…not by a long shot! First and foremost, there is the incredibly rich and intriguing history that is associated with Old World wines, and it’s a history that is actually related to what we know as Old World wine today. As a brief for instance, consider the Fall of the Roman Empire. What on earth could that have to do with Old World wine? Well, as wine-centric as the Roman Empire might have been…when the empire collapsed, the industry of growing grapes and making wine went with it. As fields became fallow, a comparatively few varietals survived centuries of agrarian neglect, and as winemaking resumed, these “survivors” became some of the principal grapes that then and now defined Old World wines. Similar examples abound.

Terroir versus Technique

As an extension of the Roman Empire theme, where certain grapes were discovered to be more durable and suitable than others for certain areas, suffice it to say that thousands of years of growing grapes and making wines throughout Europe cultivated a masterful, even scientific, understanding of which grapes grew best in certain regions and in specific kinds of soil and environmental conditions, etc.. As a result, Old World wines are by and large associated with and defined by the location and terroir in which the grapes are grown. Terroir is not just about soil. Rather, it’s a widely used viticultural term that encompasses soil chemistry and composition, micro- climates, temperature, light, elevation, precipitation, and other factors that might serve to distinguish the nature and make-up of where and how grapes are grown and the wine made. To a significant degree, Old World wines are more about reflecting and expressing the terroir…and less about the grape. By way of contrast, and while confessing there’s a lot more to the story, New World wines are far and away more about the grape than they are the terroir. To my way of thinking – fruity rich tastes, the structure and complexity of flavors associated with particular varietals and winemaking styles and techniques are more the objectives of New World winemakers – and almost to the virtual exclusion of terroir as an element of the final tastes and flavors. New World wines are more “formulated and crafted” if you will, where perfectly ripened fruit, fermentation techniques, high alcohol content, natural additives, creative blending, and intense oak aging play integral roles in defining the finished wine. It’s got to be flavor-packed!

 Is There a Difference in Taste?

I could summarize my answer succinctly by saying Old World wines are more subtle and earthy…and New World wines are more rich and fruity…but most would understandably ask, “What the heck does that really mean?” So, the best way to put your curiosity to rest is to taste Old World and New World wines -- each made from the same grape – side by side. Here are a few Old World versus New World suggestions:


Rhone Red (Syrah)


White Meritage/French Sancerre 


French Red Burgundy


FR White Burgundy


 Italian Chianti


Spanish Monastrell



 Australian Shiraz Bordeaux Red Blend 


NZ Sauvignon Blanc


Oregon or California Pinot Noir 


Californian or Chilean Chardonnay 


California Sangiovese


California Mourvêdre






Tags:  New World  Old World  wine tasting 

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