Smoke Taint

When vineyards and grapes are exposed to smoke this can result in wines with undesirable sensory characters, such as smoky, burnt, ashy or medicinal, usually described as ‘smoke tainted’. Consumers have been shown to respond negatively to smoke tainted wines. 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.

What factors affect smoke taint in the vineyard?

The key factors that determine whether smoke-exposed grapes become tainted are the grapevine growth stage, grape variety, smoke composition and the length of smoke exposure. More details about vineyard risk factors can be found in this fact sheet: Smoke taint – entry into grapes and vineyard risk factors

Fire damage of vineyards

If vines are actually burnt during a bushfire, these resources provide advice on managing damaged vines.

What are options for managing smoke-exposed fruit?

There are a number of steps that can be taken in the vineyard and winery to minimise the sensory impacts of smoke exposure. These include hand harvesting, excluding leaves, keeping fruit cool, separating press fractions, fining and reverse osmosis treatment. More details are available in the following fact sheets:

Assessing grapes affected by smoke exposure for smoke taint

The AWRI recommends assessing the risk of smoke taint via a combination of analytical testing of grapes and sensory assessment of a small-scale ferment made from the same grapes.

Grape samples should be submitted for analysis of volatile phenols and non-volatile smoke precursors. Details of the smoke taint analysis options available from AWRI Commercial Services are here: Smoke taint analysis

In addition, a small-scale ferment of potentially affected grapes can be conducted. This allows wineries to conduct sensory assessment of the small-scale wines and further determine the potential risk for smoke taint to develop in wine. A protocol for conducting small-scale ferments for this purpose is available here: Small lot fermentation method.

Smoke taint analysis results and interpretation

Smoke taint analysis results will include the volatile compounds guaiacol, methylguaiacol, ortho-, meta- and para-cresol, syringol and methylsyringol, as well as the phenolic glycoside precursor compounds syringol gentiobioside, methylsyringol gentiobioside, phenol rutinoside, cresol rutinoside, guaiacol rutinoside and methylguaiacol rutinoside. More information on what the analytical results mean, as well as the sensory impact on wine, can be found here.

To assist with interpretation of analytical results, the AWRI has established a background database of volatile phenols and precursors collected from grape and wine samples that have not been exposed to smoke. This background data can be compared to the results of potentially exposed fruit to determine the likelihood of the fruit or wine containing elevated concentrations of taint compounds. Forward your analytical results to the AWRI helpdesk on helpdesk@awri.com.au  for assistance with interpretation of results.

How to contact the AWRI Helpdesk?

Telephone: 08 8313 6600 during business hours

Email: helpdesk@awri.com.au

More information needed?

Please refer to this list of smoke taint articles and this list of articles on managing fire damanged grapevines for the latest published research. Copies of articles can be ordered from the AWRI library.