Grapes and Wild Fires

Smoke has caused a lot of damage to the 2020 grape harvest in California, Oregon and Washington during the past few weeks.  In some cases production has been reduced by over 80.  The smoke can be absorbed right into the grapes’ flesh giving them the flavour of a wet ash tray.

Atmospheric smoke has blocked the sunlight that is essential for the grapes to properly ripen. Poor air quality is slowing harvesting as fieldwork hours are being limited and particle-filtering masks are in short supply due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wineries were already facing great financial strains due to the reduction in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds visiting vineyards for tastings.  Many tasting rooms remain closed due to fire and smoke risks, while grapes may be damaged or totally ruined.

Oregon, Washington and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as crop damage can vary greatly.

Smoke has blanketed much of the U.S. West as fires have charred some 2 million hectares.

Laboratories that test grapes for smoke contamination are being overwhelmed with some taking up to a month to return results, instead of the normal week. Vineyards need this data to determine whether or not to harvest their grapes.

Winemakers and scientists are still learning how smoke can affect wine grapes and how the effects can be mitigated.  Australia has been at the forefront of the research, but studies at American universities have ramped up over the past five years.

The Australian Wine Institute has come up with a few practical ways to manage smoke-exposed grapes.  These include:

  • Hand harvest fruit to minimize breaking or rupturing of skins
  • Exclude leaf material to limit smoke-related characteristics
  • Maintain integrity of harvest fruit, avoiding maceration and skin contact
  • Keep fruit cool to extract less smoke-related compounds
  • Whole bunch press to reduce extraction of smoke-derived compounds

If corrections cannot be made, smoke taint will add two distinct compounds to wine: guaiacol (commonly called Creosote) and 4-methyl guaiacol.

White wines are often more susceptible to smoke than reds. Low levels of smoke can mask the fruit and give a dirty finishing flavour and higher levels negatively affect the smell and taste ashy.   Washing grapes with water might help get ash off the grapes but it does not reduce smoke compounds in the fruit.

It is too soon to judge how the wildfires will impact 2020 vintages but harvested grape supplies are expected to be much smaller.  With smaller harvests winemakers are expected to buy bulk wine from the 2019 season for blending with what is available from this year.

The reduced supply will most likely increase prices making U.S. wines less competitive in the international wine market for the next couple of years.

Sláinte mhaith

Chardonnay Musqué

My wife has a strong dislike for Chardonnay but a fond love for Chardonnay Musqué.  This raised the question in my mind, what makes Chardonnay Musqué different from Chardonnay?  Is there truly a discernible difference?  My wife argues that absolutely there is.

I set forth on a research expedition to determine if there is a difference, and if so, why.

What I learned is that Chardonnay Musqué is an aromatic mutation of the Chardonnay grape. It is grown principally in the vineyards of Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and New York’s Finger Lakes.

The typical Chardonnay Musqué wine is off-dry, medium bodied, and has the distinctive, grapey, Muscat-like aroma. Depending on the region and producer, other flavours and aromas might range from tropical fruit to cinnamon-tinged lemon sorbet.

There are over 40 different clones of Chardonnay, but only two of these can be called “Musqué” due to their aromatic qualities.  For you techies they are Clone 77 and Clone 809.  These wines are generally unoaked in order to preserve the fresh and fragrant aromas natural to the grape.  This is the reason why my wife likes it so much (she has a real aversion to any oaked white wine)

Several Ontario vineyards are now planted with musqué clones and the grapes may be used as either part of a blend or bottled on their own. 

Generally these wines are best when consumed relatively young.  The aromas of Chardonnay Musqué are reminiscent of Viognier or even Torrontes, and it can be made in a range of styles from dry to a little sweet to quite sweet, sometimes even with a slight spritz. 

Chardonnay Musqué can be enjoyed on its own on a warm spring or summer day, or paired with mild curries, sushi, salads, grilled salmon, or seafood.

There are several Ontario wineries using one or both Chardonnay Musqué clones in their wines.  Trail Vintner’s Weiss uses Chardonnay Musqué as part of a Riesling Chardonnay Musqué blend, while other producers, such as Chateau des Charmes, Cave Spring Cellars, and Vineland Estates, prefer to bottle the clone on its own.

A few Ontario Chardonnay Musqués:

Chateau des Charmes

Paul Bosc, founder of Chateau des Charmes, chose the particularly fragrant and interesting Clone 809 for his Chardonnay Musqué.  Only about 500 cases are bottled by the winery annually.  The 2015 vintage is available from the winery or online for $14.95.

Cave Spring Cellars

Cave Spring Cellars 2016 Chardonnay Musqué is made from 100% Chardonnay Musqué Clone 77.  This wine is fermented in stainless steel and unoaked so as to maintain every nuance of the delightful aromatics of the Chardonnay Musqué grape. It’s a wine of refinement and class. Floral, yes, but it also offers bright citrus, tropical fruit, peach and a hint of vanilla aromas. Try it with green salads or shrimp Pad Thai.  It is available from the LCBO for $17.95.

Vineland Estates

Their 2016 Chardonnay Musqué is available from the winery or online for $17.95.  The wine is described as having an abundance of warm summer melon, lime zest and tangerine aromas that roll in the glass while the welcomed edge of acidity focuses and the perfect trace of a bitter finish.

Trail Vintner’s  Weiss

The 2017 Riesling Chardonnay Musqué blend is available at the LCBO for $19.95.  According to Natalie MacLean it is a delightful, vibrant white wine blend of Riesling and Chardonnay Musqué grapes form Prince Edward County. It has aromas of daisies, lychee, apple blossom and white peach, and is balanced with racy acidity for shellfish and vegetarian dishes.

If you are a fan of Chardonnay, and unoaked Chardonnay in particular, trying Chardonnay Musqué would be well worth your while; just ask my wife.

Sláinte mhaith

Wine Production in the United States

Over 84% of the U.S.’s wine production comes from California, 5% from Washington, 3% from New York, 1­­½% from each of Oregon and Pennsylvania, and the balance from the rest of the nation.  Surprisingly there are 41 wine producing states.

The U.S. follows the Appellation System, similar to France and Italy, whereby there are currently 242 American Viticultural Areas (AVA).  In order to have an AVA appear on a wine label, at least 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have been grown in that particular appellation.

I have elected to discuss in more detail the wines of California, Washington, and Oregon as these are the wines that are available from Canadian retailers. For whatever reason wines from New York, though having higher production levels than Oregon, are not as readily available to much of Canada.

For a state or county appellation to appear on the wine label, 75% of the grapes used must be from that state or county. Some states have stricter requirements. For example, California requires 100% of the grapes used be from California for a wine labeled as such, and Washington requires 95% of the grapes in a Washington wine to be grown in Washington.

For bottles labeled with a varietal, at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine must be of that varietal. In Oregon, the requirement is 90% for certain varietals, such as pinot noir. The requirement is a minimum of 95% in California.

California

California has been stereotyped as a producer of big, blockbuster-style reds and ripe, oaky whites.  However, while these wines do exist, elegance and subtlety also play their part.

Napa and Sonoma are two regions that dominate Californian wine, but other regions are gaining in reputation, particularly those south of San Francisco, such as Paso Robles, Monterey, Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Maria Valley.  The wine must be from a particular vintage for that year to appear on the label.

California’s most renowned grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  However, there are significant amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as lesser amounts of a number of French varieties, such as Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and Mourvèdre.

Oregon

Oregon has a great reputation for Pinot Noir and aromatic white wines, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The region is on the same latitude as Burgundy, but benefits from more consistently sunny summers and very cool nights.

There are now more than 400 wineries producing pinot noir in Oregon across many sub regional areas, with the Willamette Valley having the greatest concentration of wineries. The Pinot Noir produced there has higher natural acidity than those from California. They also often have a savoury characteristic on the nose, but generous red berry tart fruits on the palate. These wines can develop great complexity with age and at their best represent some of the most serious fine wines produced in the USA.

Washington

The state of Washington is second after California in terms of importance for wine and offers a great diversity of terroirs. All of the wine growing regions are in Eastern Washington where the Cascade Mountain range acts as a rain barrier allowing for vines to grow. The climate is generally continental with hot dry summers and a significant diurnal temperature flux with summer night time temperatures dropping by more than 15 degrees. Washington is becoming recognised globally for the production of fine Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay.

Zinfandel

The one grape varietal that is pretty much exclusive to the U.S. and California in particular, is the Zinfandel.  The Zinfandel grape is very challenging to grow. It does not ripen evenly and full ripeness can be hard to achieve without reaching high sugar levels and, therefore, alcohol. The best wines, often made from the lowest viable yields, will have an intensity of fruit that more than handles the higher alcohol. Older or particularly well-balanced vineyards tend to achieve good levels of ripeness at lower alcohol levels.

The grape’s reputation has been knocked somewhat by certain growers favouring quantity over quality with plantings in unsuitably hot climates and yields that were more than was good for it. But in the right hands the grape can really excel across all price levels, producing wine that is muscular, intense and spicy, yet structured and abundantly fruity.

Final Thoughts

With regards to American wines, Zinfandel is well worth a try, and if you like big and bold wine, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay may be to your liking.  My personal favourites would include Oregon’s Pinot Noir.  Oregon Pinot is more expensive than similar wines from California or Washington, and often more difficult to find, but in my opinion the flavour difference is worth the extra effort and cost to acquire one.

Sláinte mhaith