Another grape harvest in the books. 22 vintages for me. And what a vintage 2020 has been. The winery established a ‘no visitor’ employees-only policy, so no client visits this season. We’ve all been functioning as a tight pod. And hanging over the entire harvest were continuous red flag warnings and the smoke taint issue widely appearing in the news.
I’ve personally tasted many dozens of 2020 wines in tank and barrel and (so far) there is little to no evidence that smoke taint has made its way into the wines. I know, it’s a big claim, but that’s honestly what I’ve personally observed. We won’t know for certain of course for a few more months, so stand by for an honest re-assessment this winter. To understand more about the process of smoke taint, read here: Smoke taint as presented by the Wine Spectator in 2017 and Smoke taint as presented by the Wine Spectator in 2020.
While smaller producers forged ahead with harvest and winemaking, larger players rejected huge loads of fruit. Why did some producers proceed with harvest while others rejected grapes? Many theories abound. Here are my personal observations:
- In many dozens of 2020 wines made from northern california fruit, we have observed very little presence of actual smoke flaws in the wine so far.
- Larger growers maintain significant crop insurance. Their policies allow for smoke taint as a covered item. If buyers reject their fruit, they are covered.
- Winery’s contracts with growers also provide for smoke taint as a rejectable flaw.
- Labs have the ability to test for smoke taint in the parts per billion range, in alignment with grower and winery contracts and policies.
- Grower and winery insurers have established smoke taint rejection criteria.
- The mere mention of smoke taint associated with a wine is enough to sully a valuable brand. So why put the brand at risk when you can collect insured coverage?
- But, the science of smoke taint is not perfectly understood.
- Market forces are in control. Some wineries are not unhappy with the chance to reduce a glut of inventory from the various production, economic, and virus pressures in the market. Thus rejecting fruit under contract may be a welcome relief from a mounting inventory and financial burden.
- Worthy of note, brokers have quietly tied up significant portions of the 2019 bulk wine supply right as the fires started.
- Last, look for lots of 2020 rosé wine soon – due to the way rosé is made by quickly removing the smokey skins from the juice, many wineries took that step.
Back to the 2020 vintage – at the conclusion of fermentation, the wines are pressed and barreled. They are carefully labeled and stacked. It’s quite a feeling to see 12 months of work put safely to bed.
The very last tub of fruit for 2020
A moment for MLF science – the secondary ML (malo-lactic) fermentation and chromatography
Why are some wines crisp and citrusy and others so soft and jammy or buttery? Primary fermentation involves the conversion of sugar to alcohol according to this formula: 2 parts sugar + yeast = 1 part alcohol + 1 part CO2 + heat. As the yeast converts the last few molecules of sugar, the red wins are pressed and settled, then moved into barrels. Over the winter months, the ‘secondary fermentation’ occurs. In the presence of the friendly and beneficial bacteria, relatively weak Malic acid (somewhat tart) is slowly converted into Lactic acid (the softer acid typically associated with dairy). This has the benefit of reducing some of the tartness and making the resulting wine taste softer. To monitor the status of the secondary “ML” fermentation, we use paper chromatography.
Marking the end of the harvest and arrival of the Monarch Butterflies