How Do Wildfires Effect Wine?

Wildfires have affected some of the world’s most extensive forests. The drastic effects of the never-ending fire greatly impacted the wildlife and trees. While most trees are prone to catching fire, grapevines are known to resist it. The resilient nature of vines makes them beneficial in wildfire incidents. However, the fire smoke can be a problem for grapevines. When producing wine, the effects of wildfires on wine production can cause problems.

The issue first surfaced back in 2003 during the bushfires in Australia. The winemakers witnessed a change in the tase of newly fermented wine. As a result, the Alpine Valley winemakers suffered an estimated loss of $4 million. The wine industry experts conducted multiple types of research to discover the causes behind the smoky taste. Since then, many experts have continued their research to determine the effects of wildfires on grapevines and the wine fermentation process.

Here, we will look into how wildfires affect the production and taste of wine.

Impact of Smoke Taint

Exposure to smoke in the grapes may not have noticeable effects. However, the chemical changes that occur as a result may cause problems in the fermentation process. If the winemakers overlook the possibilities of smoke taint in producing wine, they may produce a batch with a smoky and bitter taste. The smoke from wildfires can substantially increase volatile phenols, including free guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol.

If you wonder where they surprisingly come from, the answer is burning wood. Forests have tons of trees spreading across many yards. During the wildfire, the wood of the trees burns to produce a wood smoke containing volatile phenols. These compounds affect the grapevines leading to the smoky element in the wine’s taste.

Moreover, aging wines are top-rated across the globe. When produced from smoke-effected grapes, volatile phenols can increase due to acid hydrolysis of glycosidically bound volatiles.

Levels of Smoke Uptake

The impact of smoke on grapevines varies for the different stages of its growth. There is a very low chance of smoke taint affecting the grapes during the initial stages. If the shoots are about 10cm long, you can expect a minimum impact of the wildfire smoke on the fruit. The impact is similar during the next (flowering) stage of growth. While this may be correct, you can expect the smoke to cause a relatively more impact once the pea-size berries form.

This level of smoke impact continues till the veraison process of grapes. However, as soon as they are close to the harvesting period, you may need to take necessary measures to avoid the high impact of the wood smoke. It is worth noting that exposure to smoke during the growth stages can lead to delayed ripening of grapes.

Moreover, the impact of smoke may also vary for different types of grapevines. Some types are more prone to catching smoke than others. Seasonal weather conditions can play an influential role in the varied effects of different types. Furthermore, white grape wine is generally less prone to drastic chemical changes due to wildfires. The red grapes can undergo more changes resulting in a smoky taste.

Risk Evaluation

Since grapes do not show a visible sign of smoke taint, it is difficult to evaluate the effects of wildfires on wine production. While this may be true, there are a few ways to minimize the risks in the fermentation process. If you have a large batch of ripe grapes ready to use for wine production, you may need to divide it into smaller batches. Small-scale fermentation can help you evaluate the levels of smoke in the wine.

If your grapevines are spread over a relatively more expansive area, you may divide the batches into two categories. The grapevines closer to the smoke region can be fermented separately. Similarly, you can test the farther end separately. By using two differently located grape batches, you may be able to save yourself from more significant losses.

More importantly, you may need to store the harvested batches in tightly-shut packaging. The effect of wood smoke can still reach the grapes and cause chemical changes if not stored properly. However, you may not need to worry about it once fermented and stored in sealed bottles of wine.

Practical Techniques of Damage Assessment

Wine production costs a lot. However, the costs can significantly increase if the grapes are smoke-effected. There are several practical methods to assess the damage to grapevines following wildfires to avoid suffering losses. By conducting an on-time assessment, experts can opt for treatments.

Visual Assessment

The visual assessment is the first and foremost step in analyzing the condition of grapevines following a fire incident. In this step, you may categorize the damage into three levels: low, medium, and high. As discussed earlier, the effect of smoke may have varied effects based on the type and age of the grapevine. The visual examination helps you identify the overall damage and choose the correct treatment method.

Cambium Tissue Test

As a result of high-level damage, the cambium tissue in the tree’s trunk can dry up and have a pale or brown impression depending on the level of impact. You can use a small knife to cut a chunk from the trunk. If the cambium tissue is green and moist, it can be identified as healthy. On the contrary, pale and dry tissue represents damaged tissue, while brown and dry can be identified as dead.

Bud Dissection Method

The bud dissection test can analyze the fruitfulness of the grapevine. By dissecting the buds of the cane and examining them under the microscope, you can closely look at the structure of the tissues. If the color under the microscope appears green, the tissue is fruitful. However, if the color appears to be pale or brown, the tissues might be damaged.

Wrapping Up

The effects of wildfires on wine production can be drastic. A slight smoke taint can impact the taste of the wine. Using some of the evaluation and testing techniques described above, you can minimize the risks of smoke-effected wine production.

By Maria A Davidson

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