Summer smoke sees off local vintage for wineries

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Wine writer RICHARD CALVER looks at the news that there is little likelihood of a 2020 vintage for Canberra wineries.

THE 2020 year is already weird for some and tragic for others.

Richard Calver.

From the New Year’s Eve struggle to breathe and see through the yellow/brown smoke haze as we walked to Kingston to celebrate at Otis, to the hail that shattered windows in my apartment together with the now dampened fires ablaze in Namadgi and a potential pandemic that has the power to push panic worldwide, these all add up to a suspension of the normal. 

From these epic events I lead you to the dreadful news that there is little likelihood of a 2020 vintage for Canberra wineries, one of the many unhappy consequences that have resulted from the bushfire season that we have experienced.

The reason is smoke taint. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) describes this phenomenon as exposure of vines and grapes to smoke so that “undesirable sensory characters, such as smoky, burnt, ashy or medicinal” flavours are tasted in wines subsequently made. 

With the sort of restraint you expect from a research institute, they record that “consumers have been shown to respond negatively to smoke-tainted wines.” 

The science of the process is paradoxically fascinating. Here’s the AWRI again: “The compounds in smoke primarily responsible for the taint are the free volatile phenols that are produced when 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.” 

Fran Marshall, from the Canberra District Wine Industry Association has told “CityNews” that the impact of smoke is varied across the district. 

“Initial smoke taint test reports indicate that each area within our district is receiving vastly different levels of smoke taint results, and as several wineries are still going through the smoke testing process, we still don’t have a clear picture of the level of damage to the whole district just yet,” she says. 

Despite that approach, the decision to not harvest in 2020 has already been made by some individual wineries. 

Ms Marshall indicates that this “reinforces their own and our region’s ethos of premium-quality wines that represent the unique terroir that is Canberra District wines. 

“We take our responsibility to lovers of Canberra wine seriously and we have taken steps to ensure the highest standards of quality and integrity are evident in the instance that wine is made in 2020.”

Bravo. The message is that, whenever we can, we must support those who have been caused loss because of the bushfires. The way to help is to buy Canberra wines. 

As we sit out the coronavirus isolation, please look out for a Canberra district wine. 

As Ms Marshall says: “This prospective lack of vintage 2020 provides us an opportunity to be very excited about the release of the district’s 2019 red wines, knowing that 2019 was one of the best vintages on record. 

“Our ‘19 wines, and those from the ’17 and ’18 vintages will become the highlight of 2020, and it’s these wines that we invite you all to buy, drink and savour.” 

And those aren’t tears, by the way, my eyes have been irritated by the smoke. 

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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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