“I know I’ve come across bottled wines and thought, ‘wow, this is an ashtray. How did it get this far?'” says winemaking consultant Eleni Papadakis, who judges also regional competitions.
Papadakis says the effects of recent wildfires on grapes can be tasted in wines from Oregon to California and around the world — and identifying vines damaged by the smell of smoke can be tricky and expensive.
“And you just scrapped an entire vintage for an entire part of the world?” she says, pointing out that winemakers can spend thousands of dollars on testing to spot the damage.
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Enter Phil Crews, winemaker and professor of chemistry at UC Santa Cruz. Crews first took note of the problem of smoke damage after the devastating 2018 Mendocino complex fire and began investigating better techniques for identifying grapes containing what is known as “the smell.” of smoke”.
He says the smell can sometimes remain hidden, when smoky compounds, called phenols, bind to sugar molecules in the grapes, forming a complex molecular relationship. But they can be released later by enzymes during the fermentation process, or even when the compounds come into contact with a wine drinker’s saliva.
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“Enzymes in your saliva and bacteria in your mouth will also cleave this complex and release the foul-smelling volatile phenols. That’s when you can taste them,” says Crews.
To better identify the process and the taint it produces, Professor Crews expanded on work done in Australia, where wildfires had also devastated grape crops. He says the key is testing for smoke-derived compounds that can be used as biomarkers. Modern techniques such as ultra-high performance liquid chromatography, or UHPLC, and quantitative mass spectrometry can then help identify compounds, even if they don’t produce the full smoke taste in their current form.
“It was a technology that we put on the table, you separate the compounds. And it’s these complexes and you measure them by visualizing them using mass spectrometry, chromatography does a separation, spectrometry of mass is doing a visualization,” says Crews.
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The hope is that more accurate testing could save winemakers around the world millions of dollars a year, by only identifying the affected grapes and saving the rest.
“And make better decisions and hopefully get more back,” Papadakis says.
All in an industry with notoriously tight profit margins and discerning consumers.
The researchers say the study is based on an analysis of more than 200 grape and wine samples from 21 wine regions in California and Oregon.
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