There isn't much that Gregory Jones hasn't seen in his decades working in and researching the wine industry. But a stretch of unprecedented weather events followed by massive, statewide wildfires is a new one.
Jones is the director of Linfield University's Evenstad Center for Wine Education and teaches classes on the wine industry. His specialty is the study of "climate structure and suitability for viticulture, and how climate variability and change influence grapevine growth, wine production and quality," according to his biography on Linfield's website.
In short, he's Oregon's foremost expert on wine and climate.
Oregon's wildfires, he said, were set up by weather conditions that would have changed wine grapes anyway and produced flavors unique to the times of growth and harvest. Now, winemakers have smoke taint to contend with as well, but it isn't as worrisome as some might think; Oregon's signature pinot noirs aren't going to taste like a campfire.
"The weather conditions leading up to and causing the current situation in Oregon and the western U.S. was unprecedented and likely a once in a generation event," Jones said. "A very large high-pressure area stretching from the desert (Southwest) to Alaska brought extreme heat and very dry conditions to the western U.S. The dome of high pressure pushed the jet stream into northern Canada and forced cold air southward into the Rockies and the central U.S. This outflow of air brought strong winds from the east toward the West Coast. These winds moved over numerous mountainous areas, warming, drying and increasing in wind speed."
Dry, hot air has a tangible impact on wine grapes and impacts the flavor long-term, creating a different flavor profile than that from grapes picked during wetter harvest seasons. The air quality from wildfires will not necessarily make wine taste like fire smoke, Jones said, but smoke taint can create off aromas and flavors unique to such a situation.
While we won't know for years what vintages produced and bottled during the fires of 2020 taste like, the fact that these fires occurred during harvest season is significant.
"A smoky wine is not a fire-smoky wine and not all smoke produces smoke-impacted wines," Jones explained. "This issue is a very complex issue … and there are some things we know and many things we don't know about this issue. What is clear is that the historical use of the term 'smoky' with wine has been tied to red wines that have spent some time aging in oak barrels, which in turn imparts an aromatic characteristic of 'smokiness' to the wine.
"From Australia to Portugal to California to Washington to Oregon, fires have occurred in and near wine regions with numerous reports of smoke 'tainted' or 'impacted' wines. Aspects of how far the smoke travels, the smoke's composition, the level in the air that the smoke is at, the timing during the vintage, and how long it lasts all play a role in whether any smoke impact might occur to the wines.
The additional complication is that grapes may not have any direct flavor or aroma of smoke, but through the fermentation of the grapes a chemical transformation creates less desirable characteristics to the wine."
As far as flavor goes, it's a collective shrug of the shoulders from the industry at this point, because of so many factors at play with Oregon's smoky skies and how they will impact its wines.
But the study is clear, according to researchers at Oregon State University, who sought to clear up rumors about smoke's impact on wine in a white paper published in August. According to their paper, ripe and overripe grapes are sensitive to smoke exposure; washing grapes before processing won't remove smoke aroma compounds from berry skins; enzyme additions during winemaking won't release bound smoke aroma compounds; and bound smoke aroma compounds do contribute to smoke taint.
The greatest focus of the industry right now, though, is keeping its workers safe from the smoke and delaying harvest until it clears, Jones said.
"Prior to this event, the harvest in Oregon was in its early stages with fruit for sparkling wines and rose wines starting to come in for processing," Jones said. "The rest of the crop was 10 to 14 days from starting harvest in earnest. The winds and then the smoke have slowed things to a halt, with the vast majority of operations stopped for the safety of pickers and crush pad crews. It is likely to be later in the coming week before harvest ramps back up again with many paying close attention to air quality and the health and safety of workers."
Information on smoke's impact on wine, collected by Oregon State University researchers for winegrowers and those interested, can be found at https://bit.ly/2FulVyj. For more information on Jones's work, visit www.linfield.edu/wine/greg-jones.html.
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