19 January 2020

Anxious wait for winemakers to see if smoke has impacted harvest

| Dominic Giannini
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Ken Helm

Ken Helm at his Helm Wines vineyard. Photo: Access Canberra.

With bushfire smoke regularly choking Canberra, there are concerns the flow-on could affect this year’s wine harvest from vineyards in the capital region.

When vineyards and grapes are exposed to high levels of smoke, wines can be left with a smoky, burnt or ashy taste known as ‘smoke taint’, according to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

Ken Helm from Helm Wines, famous for its award-winning Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons, says it is an expensive process to test whether grapes are tainted.

“At this stage, we just do not know if the smoke has affected the grapes,” Ken told Region Media.

“We will have to wait until verasion [the onset of ripening], which happens around the first or second week of February before we can send them off for testing.

“We hope the smoke will be gone by then.”

Testing to see if the smoke has impacted wine can be very expensive, Ken said.

“We will send samples off to the AWRI to see if the smoke has impacted the grapes,” he told Region Media.

“It costs around $350 to $370 per sample, so it can get quite expensive.”

In layman’s terms, compounds from burnt wood can bind with sugars in the grapes which are then released during fermentation and over time in the bottle and barrels, allowing the smoky flavour to be perceived.

If a high concentration comes back, Ken says it wouldn’t be worthwhile picking the grapes as Helm Wines will not use the smoke-affected grapes.

“We can lose hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in the Canberra district,” he said.

“We will make a decision based on each individual wine.

“We expect to make around 5,000 cases of wine, and each case sells for a minimum of $200, so you do the calculations, that is a lot of money.”

But the smoke’s impact goes past the potential spoiling of grapes.

“On top of the effect of the grapes, which we hope will not happen, we are also seeing a drop of tourist numbers across our cellar doors,” Ken said.

“Last week, we only got 10 per cent of our usual number through our cellar door, and have seen a drop in sales. That is our lifeblood at this time of year. Smaller wineries rely on the income through their cellar doors as they do not make a lot of money selling to restaurants.”

Original Article published by Dominic Giannini on The RiotACT.

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