Wine: will vintage 2015 be affected by smoke?


The fires across the Cape Peninsula were swift, merciless and brutal, destroying homes, fynbos and to a lesser extent, vineyards.

Estimates are that only small amounts of vineyard plantings have been lost, mainly at Cape Point Vineyards, Klein Constantia and Buitenverwachting, but the big question on everyone’s lips is – will the fires have affected the grapes, and ultimately the wines, in other ways?

Let’s get some basics straight. Most white grapes ripen before red grapes and in the cooler climate regions of Constantia and Cape Point, most of the grapes grown are white. Because this year’s harvest was very early, most farms had brought in the majority of their white grapes already and nearly everyone seems to agree that 2015 is looking set to be a stellar year all round.

Right now, Stellenbosch is also under threat from fires and smoke damage, although as a warmer region than Constantia, most grapes of all colours are already picked and being made into wine.

The problems for lie with the black grapes used to make red wine. Smoke covered pretty much all the vineyards in Constantia and Cape Point at some point (although farms en route to Hout Bay such as Eagles’ Nest, Constantia Glen and Beau Constantia look to have escaped the worst of it) and that smoke can give unwanted flavours to the wine such as burnt toast, smoked fish, ashtray and other unpleasant tastes.

The problems are two-fold – firstly that these flavours are difficult to detect with any certainty whilst the wine is being made. You can taste the juice and think it’s fine to go ahead and put it in the bottle only to find when the wine is opened later, these off-flavours have developed and made the wine taste awful.

Secondly, most of the taint is absorbed by the skins of the grapes which makes it far more problematic in red wines than whites. Most white winemaking means discarding the skins immediately which reduces the off-flavours, but red wines require long maceration with the skins in order to extract tannin and colour and this will result in higher levels of smoky flavours being extracted at the same time. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be little a winemaker can do to reverse the effects of smoke once the grapes are tainted. You can’t wash the smoke-taint away and adding certain chemicals is mostly considered unreliable and undesirable. Because both Constantia and Cape Point produce mainly top-end wines, this may mean good news for consumers, as any suspicion of taint will probably result in wines being downgraded or sold off - meaning we could see a rush of good-value reds coming from these regions, albeit labelled in unfamiliar ways. 

Cape Point Vineyards are already joking about replacing their Splattered Toad range with a special ‘Smoked Toad’ wine this year, possibly with some profits going to the firefighters who helped save their farm. Ultimately as Lars Maack, owner of Buitenverwachting says, “If we’ve got smoke damage, it’s only a short-term problem. We’re just thankful it was no worse.”

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