About midway through a class of zinfandels at last weekend's Long Beach Grand Cru wine competition, I found myself thinking: Several of these wines sure do seem to have a lot of smoke.
Now, some smoke in some wines is seen as a good thing, especially if it's just a whiff to add complexity, and not a dense pall that obscures the fruit and other alluring characteristics. By and large, smoke in wine comes from barrels, often scorched to varying degrees of toastiness.
That could have been the case with the clearly smoky zinfandels, but maybe not. All the zinfandels in the class our panel was assigned were from the 2008 vintage. That's the year that more wildfires than usual blazed across Northern California, occasionally smothering neighboring vineyards in smoke. At the time, growers and winemakers fretted that grapes exposed to smoke for a prolonged period might be adversely affected. Now the red wines of 2008 are being released, and their concern looks justified.
This past spring, Ben Worthen of the Wall Street Journal reported at length about measures that vintners in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley have taken to remove excessive "smoke taint" from their pinot noir, the most highly regarded varietal in the appellation. Their efforts weren't always successful, vintners conceded to Worthen. As a consequence, some vintners have taken unusual steps, such as cutting back on the amount of pinot noir they are releasing, putting it up under another label, selling it off in bulk, and reducing prices.
After the Grand Cru's coded results were released, I went back through my notes to learn the origin of the five wines I thought were excessively smoky, though none of them, frankly, had the stench of an ashtray never emptied during an all-night poker session, which the phrase "smoke taint" seems to suggest.
At any rate, two of the wines were from Mendocino County, but two also were from Lodi, which I don't recall being as inundated with smoke. Maybe a couple of winemakers in Lodi just like to load their zinfandel with a lot of toasty oak. Another was from Sonoma County. None of the wines we gave gold medals was from Mendocino County or Lodi, but two were from Sonoma County.
OK, the lesson for consumers here isn't any different than it is for any wine purchase. If at all possible, taste a wine before buying it. If that isn't possible, buy from a wine merchant whose candor and fairness you have come to respect; if a wine appears to be smokier than usual for the style, he or she will say so. And remember, 35 of the 40 wines in the zinfandel class weren't notably heavy with smoke, indicating that if there is a smoke issue with the vintage of 2008 it just might be limited to a few enclaves. There's no need to condemn an entire vintage.