Fire in wine

Perhaps my memory is errant, but this seasons seems to have had more fires than usual, certainly more fires across areas that are planted to vine. In the valley where I live, the scent of smoke has re-prioritised many a day’s plans, with neighbours dropping everything and rushing out to help.
Having seen a couple of these fires from closer quarters, with a wind rushing the flames across the tinder of dry vegetation, the destructive wonder of a brush fire is truly fearsome. When the wind is strong, there is little the fire-fighters can do except douse the houses and hope for a slackening in the wind – which is a faint hope with the south-easter. All tribute to those who have been working to save land and life this season.
Shame on the fire-starters, for many of the flare-ups seem to have been purposefully instigated. Any farming activity has enough randomness built in, a malicious human is one that’s really not needed.
Obviously, the worst outcome of these conflagrations is the total destruction of plantings, something that a few farmers have had to deal with this season, notably in the Bain’s Kloof area. But what about all the smoke? It certainly penetrates clothes and furniture, does it also affect the grapes, even if they aren’t actually singed?
The answer is yes but it’s spelled “guaiacol” – which is the compound that causes a smoky, burnt and downright unpleasant flavour in wines that come from grapes that are smoke polluted. Australia has done extensive research into this phenomenon, especially after their huge fires of 2003 and 2004.
In experiments, they tried to wash the effected grapes, hoping that the guaiacol was only sitting on the outer waxy layer, but to no avail. The off flavours were in fact on the inside of the skins, and they were released during the maceration of the berries after the skins are broken and the juice runs out.
For this reason, wines where the wine-maker uses “skin contact” for longer periods (like the reds) are potentially worse off; while the fresh whites, quickly taken from the skins, should escape too much harm. Yet these are often afflicted by a dried-out palate after smoke damage, making the harm universal. For fresh whites like sauvignon blanc, this compound mars the bright flavours, and without these, many whites flake out.

Wine of the week:
Something completely different to bright whites, the other night I entered big shiraz territory. It’s already won a raft of awards, and the Glen Carlou Shiraz 2004 is certainly also worthy of the silverback award in the jungle of big reds out there. Large in every department, but the departments are all in place.