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Australia is a sunburnt country. The 2020 vintage is fresh in our memories and is marked by massive losses within the industry due to fire and smoke taint. Our next big fire season is, sadly, inevitable. So what have we learnt? What can winemakers do to prevent losses in the future?

Mark Walpole, from Fighting Gully Road ( fightinggullyroadwines.com.au), was able to break down the science for me. “Before 2003, we didn’t really know anything. Now, Australia is leading the world in research,” he says.

Simply put, smoke carries volatile compounds. These can permeate grape skin and bind to sugars. Fermentation frees some of these compounds, resulting in a tainted wine. Some, though, remain bound and are only revealed with time in bottle. This could take months. It could take years.

“If you were set on making a wine, there are a few things you can do,” says Walpole. Fining the wine with vegetable protein or activated charcoal powder removes some of the taint, but it can also strip colour and flavour – and there’s still a chance the wine will become faulty over time. “In a premium wine region, it’s a risk,” he says. “No one wants to make bad wine and damage their name. Sometimes the smallest loss is to do nothing.”

But the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Without a viable product, wineries risk losing their hard-earned place in restaurant lists or retail shelves. Some producers approached the issue of smoke taint from a different angle.

Sorrenberg ( sorrenberg.com) did release a 2020 vintage, which was declassified and labelled as Inkerman Road. The grapes were chilled and only lightly pressed, resulting in a wine that had minimal free smoke compounds. It was released as a ‘drink now’ style. It’s a simple idea – the less time in bottle, the less chance of the wine developing any taint. Happily, the reviews have all been positive.

Andrew Margan, of Margan Wines ( margan.com.au), took a different path. An ever curious man, he ran his tainted wine through reverse osmosis. “It won’t transform a bad wine into a good one,” he says. “But it can improve it.” This filtration method removed a large portion of the volatile compounds. I was fortunate enough to taste it last year. There was nothing overtly unpleasant at all, but it did have a tinny finish. “That’s smoke taint,” Margan explains. “It can be ashen, but it’s frequently a metallic taste.” Ultimately, the wine was not released and was sent off for distillation.

Distilling wine has a long history and the Archie Rose team ( archierose.com.au) felt driven to give some spoilt fruit a new lease on life. Head distiller Dave Withers puts it simply. “In spirits, smoke is not the bad boy. It’s character. In this case, it speaks to the season.”

He received 50,000L of shiraz from the Hunter and distilled it into 9,000L of spirit. “Phenols are more volatile in water than ethanol, so we could run precise cuts to make sure the spirit was exactly what we wanted.” A third of the spirit was released as an eau de vie called the Hunter Valley Shiraz Spirit. Eventually, the rest will be released as brandy. The public support of the project has proved that smoke-tainted grapes can still produce a premium product.

Brewing has also proved an option. Bryan Martin of Ravensworth collaborated with Wildflower Brewing ( wildflowerbeer.com) to make the Bright Side, a series of beers made with tainted fruit. Martin is thrilled with the results. “We put the grapes through carbonic maceration for three weeks and drained off any juice. The beer was then tipped into the tanks and fermented over the fruit.”

The reason is unclear, but the beer had no evidence of smoke taint. Perhaps, due to a different fermentation process and greater diversity of micro-organisms, beer simply breaks down any volatile components. “It’ll be interesting to see if they become smoky in a few years,” says Martin. “But hopefully they’ll all be drunk by then. Beers aren’t normally cellared.”

The most challenging obstacle is public education. Generalising is a massive risk, and some people have been quick to dismiss entire regions and vintages. Smoke taint simply doesn’t work that way. Wind currents and landscape mean that while one vineyard may be affected, the site across the road could be perfect. Avoiding an entire region due to smoke taint puts every producer at a disadvantage.