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Weekend Wine: Where there's fire

This week, Vin discusses the effects the wildfires in California could have on its wine industry and gives you his picks of the week as we begin to prepare for the holidays

Recent articles in the Wine Spectator on-line reveal that the recent wild fires that devastated northern California wine country took more than 40 lives, burning 210,000 acres, destroying 8,000 buildings and causing nearly 5 billion dollars in damage.

As 90 per cent of the harvest was complete before the fires roared in, it is expected that the fires shouldn’t have a major impact on the vintage. As for escalating costs, one concern going forward will be labour. 

In Napa, labourers already were earning about $42,000 (compared to the state average for farm workers of 10 to 30 thousand dollars). Many labourers were commuting up to 3 and 4 hours, and now with housing under significant strain in the region, more pressure will come to bear, and perhaps increased prices will result.  It could take up to two years to re-build what was lost.

During the fires, the vineyards often acted as fire-breaks, and in Napa it is not uncommon to see charred hills acting as a backdrop to green vineyards. They say that singed leaves shouldn’t have much of an impact on next year’s production, but scorched vines might be another story.  Winemakers won’t know if the vines have any life in them until they undergo winter pruning. Depending on the fire damage, vines may not return to full cropping levels for several years.

Of the 10 per cent of the harvest still hanging when the fires arrived, most of that is Cabernet Sauvignon, the most valuable crop in Napa. Unless yours was one of the handful of wineries seriously damaged or destroyed, the problems with wines undergoing fermentation might relate to heat. Serious power outages accompanied the fires, and if fermentation temperatures got too hot, the wine could taste “cooked”, or the yeasts which convert sugars to alcohol could die before fermentation was complete.

If skins couldn’t be pressed, up to 25 per cent of the wine could be lost; that said, many higher-end wineries don’t use press-wine in their premium wines. Still, even if they usually sell off the press wine, that income could be out the window.

The greatest issue for those grapes still on the vine after the fires will be the smoke. Some are hoping that, because Cabernet Sauvignon has relatively thick skin, the smoke won’t be concerning, but that may be wishful thinking.

Studies in Australia in 2008 reveal that a single 30-minute heavy exposure to smoke at a sensitive time in vine growth (from seven days after the vines change colour – veraison – until harvest) is enough to result in smoke effect in wine. Smoke, too, can have a cumulative effect, so that even small levels over extended periods can be trouble. The nearer to harvest, the higher the risk.

Fortunately, smoke issues do not carry over from one year to the next in a vine, though yield may be lower.

Smoke residue contains high concentrations of volatile phenols which can accumulate in grape skins and are released into the wines during fermentations.  Ultimately, according to The Viticultural Blog of October 12, 2017, the wines can display “aromas such as burnt rubber, bacon, disinfectant or ash.” Lignin, a phenolic compound in wood, is responsible.

Once grapes have absorbed the phenols, they can then bind to grape sugars.  In this stage there are no odours; however, during fermentation or aging, the ‘bind’ can break down, releasing the volatile phenols into the must or wine, causing noticeable smoke-taint.  The saliva in our mouths can reveal or accentuate these “stinkers”.

There are steps winemakers can take to minimize the impact when they are worried that there might be smoke-taint, according to the Western Australia Agriculture Authority in 2011.  They include keeping the fruit cool, processing it at 10 degrees Celcius; minimizing maceration - soaking; employing yeasts that can alter smoke-related odours and flavours; avoiding charred oak barrels, but perhaps adding oak tannins.

The problem with minimizing skin contact is that that is where the wine gets its colour and tannins.  Grape tannins can be added, but that wouldn’t help with the colour, likely.

It was also suggested that wine be made that is marketed for early consumption.  Considering that Napa is premium wine country, where the reds are often aged in oak barrels for a considerable period and sold for top dollar, selling it off for early drinking will result in a significant economic hit for the affected wineries.

One process that may offer hope was mentioned in the Australian Journal of Grapes and Wine Research in August 2012.  Activated carbon filtration was found in a study to significantly ameliorate the taint with little or no impact on colour.

As for wines in fermentation that might have been exposed to smoke, the thought is that the carbon dioxide produced in the process should act as a protective layer insulating the wine from any harm.

All in all, for us to get a true and full picture of the fall-out from the fires, we will just have to wait and see.

Wines on the general list

The most recent issue of the Wine Spectator recommended Fantini Farnese Montepulicano d’Abruzzo 2016 as a “Best Buy” scoring it 88. I tried the 2015 in our stores and it is really very good, with ample fruit and a round, warm taste.  This medium weight Italian red hails from the area around Ortona on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The magazine remarking on its “dried fig, grilled herb and star anise,” indicated the suggested retail price is $11 in the States. Here, the wine is just $8.95, or $13.95 for 1.5 litres.

From the Veneto comes the Cantina di Negrar Garganega 2016, $9.85. This pure, simple white with light pear notes on entry and a perfect touch of acidity on the finish also scored 88, this time from the Globe and Mail. “Garganega” is the grape commonly used in Soave, and the Globe described this wine as “plump and richly flavoured”.

Phone ahead to see if your store has these in stock, and get them to order in if it isn’t on the shelves. You won’t be sorry.

It has become a trend for Whiskey makers to market products that have been aged in used wine barrels, particularly sherry. In the last couple of years, we have begun to see winemakers turning the tables and making wines that have been aged in used whiskey barrels, so what goes around, comes around.

I remember a friend acquiring a used whiskey barrel and adding water to it, and rotating it for a time - the result: whiskey- of a sort. It was called a “swish barrel.”  The point is the barrels are rich in evaporated spirit. California’s Robert Mondavi has produced both a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay, aging the wines in used Bourbon barrels for a few months.  The process imparts a distinctive taste to the wines, unquestionably. The wines will be available as of November 12 for a limited period of time.

The Monterey County 2016 Private Selection Chardonnay, $19.95, Aged 6 months in Bourbon barrels, is rich, lush and distinctive with almost tropical fruit along with enhanced vanilla and toffee overtones. It could serve as an after-dinner drink, or could accompany buttery dishes with ease.

The Monterey County 2016 Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, $20.95 equally displays its whiskey heritage.  Dark and plush, a portion of the wine was aged for 10 months in new and used American oak bourbon barrels. The bourbon ancestry reveals itself on the after-taste with an impression of smoke, dark brown sugar, and sweet spices. Pair it with a spiced rubbed steak or glazed ribs, and you will be very, very happy.

Many are already familiar with the popular Montezovo Sa’ Solin Valpolicella Ripasso, a Vintages essential for a number of years now.   The 2014 is now coming to our shelves at $18.95. Bright and flavourful, this vintage earned a heady 93 from Carolyn Evans Hammond in the Toronto Star – her scores are generally high, but even so, this a  notch or two above, even on her scale. There is a tangy quality and gentle tannins at play, with a nice tension between depth and freshness.

The producer, Diego Cottini, was recognized at the international Mundus Vini as “Best European Producer”, and his many wines earned several silver and gold awards.

Less well known to us are his Villa Annaberta wines. The Valpolicella Ripasso 2014, $18.05 is distinct from its companion Sa’ Solin.  It has 1 per cent more alcohol at 14.5 per cent, and comes across with a significantly smooth mouth-feel and soft, soft tannins. Deep dark berry fruit lingers, and the over-all effect is integrated and lingering. Buy one of each and compare – it will be quite revealing.

At $38.95, the Villa Annaberta Amarone Della Valpolicella 2012 is at the less expensive end of the “Amarone Spectrum”, but it comes with a 90 from the respected Wine Enthusiast publication.  Tannins are prominent but not over-whelming, flavours of dark cherry and smoky cocoa and spice come through, and the richness continues to assert itself well after you’ve swallowed it down. Seriously good and heady at 15 per cent alcohol.

“Amarone” is the “big brother” of the Ripasso clan.  Ripasso’s are made using the skins left over from Amarone production to enhance the more common Valpolicella wines through a second fermentation. Waste not, want not.

November 11 Vintages Release

The LCBO is gearing up for the December Holidays, and so the prices on this release are creeping up. We will pay more attention to the strategy next column, but for now will mention a few wines that could be worth seeking out.

White Wines

South Africa’s reliable Cathedral Cellar gives us their 2014 Chenin Blanc, $16.95, which garnered gold in the 2015 International Wine and Spirit Competition.  The Decanter panel gives it an89, picking up on sweet fig and pear, along with lime and melon on the finish.

Hugel Gentil 2015, $17.95 is a popular white blend from Alsace. This dry but fruity white combines all of the white grapes for which the region is known, from Gewurztraminer and Riesling to Pinot Blanc, Muscat and more. Dry and aromatic, it is a good match for hors d’oeuvres or shellfish.

Kim Crawford Small Parcels Spitfire Sauvignon Blanc 2017, $24.95, immediately reveals its distinctive character with clear grapefruit aromas that are reinforced immediately on the palate with lip-smacking citrus and classic gooseberry flavours. This is totally a benchmark example of Sauvignon Blanc in the style that fans of the grape celebrate. Even the lingering aftertaste can have your taste-buds puckering in appreciation.

Red Wines

Domaine Autrand Côtes du Rhone 2015, $13.95 may be the sleeper of the release. A blend of Grenache and Syrah, it is balanced, suggesting dark and red berry fruit along with good depth.  Lots to enjoy for a very modest outlay.

Cr Gold 5 Monastrell/ Syrah 2013, $17.95 is a Spanish red carrying a 92 from the Wine Enthusiast.  Michael Schachner writes “this wine is a driller… oaky flavours of dark-berry fruits and black plums finish with vanilla and lactic notes. This is rock solid head to toe.”

Demorgenzon DMZ Syrah 2014, $16.95, from a South African property that continually pipes Baroque music through the vineyards to positively influence the ripening grapes, we have a red wine laden with dark fruits and good acidity, with spice notes revealing themselves on the finish.

Purple Cowboy Trail Boss Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, $24.95. From Paso Robles, this wine may also contain Syrah and Zinfandel, The 2014 version won multiple gold medals and was named best in class with a 95 at the California State Fair. Expect a big, juicy “in-your-face” style showing ripe dark berry fruit and with the suggestion of vanilla and chocolate on the finish, according to Vintages.


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