The phrase “smoky finish” might be commonly heard at Whiskey Hill Winery this summer, and not because — as I suspect is the case most of the time — someone is pretending to be able to taste whether a wine is “toasty,” “loamy” or “muscular.”
No, the smoky finish is quite literal for many Oregon pinot noirs produced in 2020, as the destructive wildfires last September filled the skies with ash and charcoal — during a time when vintners would normally be preparing to harvest.
Seriously, the historic 2020 wildfire season was devastating to the wine-growing industry in Oregon and California.
Regardless of whether a winery suffered direct fire damage, the ash and soot that filled the skies throughout the Northwest wreaked havoc on their harvest, rendering them — in many cases — unfit for production.
“The Willamette Valley is one of the world’s premier regions for pinot noir and the wildfires were brutal on the fruit,” Whiskey Hill Winery’s Chris Helbling explained. “The wine grapes are most susceptible to smoke taint right before harvest, and this is when the fires exploded.”
Before last year, Oregon winegrowers were not as familiar with smoke taint, also known as “smoke impact” — but they learned fast.
At Whiskey Hill, Helbling and his team “read a lot, talked to our industry friends and, in all honesty, hoped for the best,” Helbling said.
The only way to know for sure how badly grapes were impacted is through scientific tests, but labs were so backlogged last fall that the harvest would have rotted on the vine before results came back.
“We had to rely on our senses,” Helbling said.
After the smoke cleared, they did “bucket ferments” — which is exactly what it sounds like.
“We picked 20 pounds of grapes, squished them up and started a ferment in a 5-gallon bucket with the various varietals,” Helbling explained. “This gave us a small red wine ferment to get an idea what we would get out of our fruit.”
After careful consideration, Helbling decided to use the crop to make white wines instead — which tend to retain less of the smoky flavor and aroma due to being fermented without the skins and seeds.
This summer, Whiskey Hill will be offering a tasting flight of these two estate wines — a white pinot noir and a riesling — a sort of real-life demo of making lemonade out of lemons (or in this case, making wine out of smoke-impacted grapes) for the adventurous connoisseur.
Helbling said the experience also gives him the opportunity to share more about the winemaking process, how the smoke impacted it and what they learned.
Located at 29510 S Barlow Road, Whiskey Hill & Postlewait’s Tasting Room is open from noon to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Last call at 4:30 p.m.
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