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What Exactly Is Smoke Taint? Rogue Valley Winegrowers Await Research

Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor speaks with Rogue Valley Winegrowers president John Pratt about smoke taint's effects on wine grape crops.
Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor speaks with Rogue Valley Winegrowers president John Pratt about smoke taint's effects on wine grape crops.

Earlier this fall a major California winery canceled $4-million-worth of orders with Southern Oregon winegrowers over smoke taint. But what exactly is smoke taint?

Enologist Anita Oberholster of the University of California, Davis, Extension says it's what happens when a grape’s ripening skin absorbs fresh smoke, resulting in a flavor that’s like an old ashtray.

Except that it's not really a flavor.

“We say taste but it’s really a retronasal smell at the back of the throat,” Oberholster said. “But it feels like it is a taste.”

As the grape’s skin is developing, it’s absorbing the chemical compounds in the air. If those compounds include a significant amount of smoke, then that could change the chemical makeup of the grape.

Oberholster says researchers are testing solutions to smoke taint, including various clays, “to see if there’s anything that can form a protective layer around the grape so the smoke compounds can’t absorb into the grape.”

They’re also researching how to measure those smoke compounds and define specific levels of smoke taint. That could help winegrowers assess just how tainted their grapes really are.

For winegrower John Pratt of Medford, that research can’t come soon enough. He’s the president of the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association.

Pratt says he’d like to include specific measurements of smoke taint in winegrowers contracts with vintners.

“The contracts have to be much more specific about the levels of smoke taint that would justify canceling a contract,” he said.

Copyright 2018 Jefferson Public Radio