Wild Fires, Smoke Taint, and Flash Détente

The Valley Fire that has been burning this past week has been shocking and devastating.  Many other fires this season have caused significant destruction and loss.  The number of wildfires doesn’t compare to the quantity in 2008, but the acreage burned for this year is quite high.  In 2008, the quantity (1,375,781 acres burned), and lingering smoke, resulted in heavy levels of smoke taint throughout wine country.  With the large wildfires at the start of this summer, some thought that taint might be an issue this summer.  However, large differences exist between the wildfires of this season and those of 2008.

In 2008, the quantity of wildfires was much greater, along with decreased winds.  This led to the smoke being stagnant within vineyards, increasing the taint that came through the grapes to the wine.  This year, lower burned acreage (215,000 acres) and wind speeds have been high and consistent, keep most to the smoke at bay.  Combined with early harvesting, little threat has been made to the grapes.  Until now.  With the extent and swiftness of the Valley Fire, the likelihood of damage is much higher.  Some grapes may be completely lost, as at Langtry-Guenoc in Middletown, Langtry Winery indicates:

It’s likely that we won’t be able to harvest the remaining grapes due to smoke damage, but our winemaker is doing lab work to confirm.

However, those grapes that have been affected can be treated with Flash Détente.

Flash Détente is a method of thermovinification where the grapes are quickly heated and then cooled to denature enzymes, increase extraction of anthocyanins, and slow extraction of tannins.  Flash was originally utilized for the inhibition of the laccase enzyme, which is present in grapes when they become infected with Botrytis.  Botrytis, also called Noble Rot, can be beneficial in some very specific cases.  In fact, those wines are often highly prized and very expensive (’90 Sauternes, $445).  For the rest of the cases, Botrytis is a fungus that results in increased microbial load, browning, off aromas, and large amounts of loss from vineyard to winery.  Generally speaking, not good.  While developing Flash, it was discovered the method also removed volatile aromas.

Flash Detente Schematic
Flash Detente Schematic
Flash Detente
Flash Detente

Smoke taint is also an aroma that can be removed.  This is achieved by heating the grapes to 80-90°C, then rapidly cooling them to 35°C using a water condenser with a 90% vacuum.  The volatile compounds are ‘pushed’ from the grapes at the high heat and ‘pulled’ into the cool water.  The grapes are left with no undesirable aromas.  The cool water becomes “Flash water.”   Flash water is a purified from of what your grapes would have smelled like. The whole process only takes a few hours and can be accomplished by mobile system, depending on the tonnage you want processed.  Though it can be somewhat expensive, especially for smaller wineries, it can be a great way to salvage your product for a given vintage!

Side Note: It is quite interesting to smell Flash water because you can often tell where the grapes were located.  For example, a vineyard that was next to cows will produce Flash water that smells like a cow farm.  Or a vineyard next to a highway will produce Flash water that smells like diesel and gasoline.  Some may equate these aromas to terroir.  But, personally, I’m not a big fan of cow with my wine.

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