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Oz fires lead to smoke taint innovation

Published:  05 August, 2021

Research is being carried out in Australia to convert smoke from 2019’s devasting bushfires into a desirable characteristic that can be turned into one-of-a-kind spirits.

Woodside winemaker Simon Tolley Wines is currently taking part in a research study at the University of Adelaide, which aims to salvage soiled grapes tainted with smoke and distil them into brandy.

“Hopefully we can roll out a smoke-flavoured brandy or gin in our cellar door in about 12 months’ time. The project will hopefully assist other smoke-affected growers in the future and give them more options with the rejected wine fruit rather than putting it on the ground,” Tolley said.

Fifth-generation grape grower Simon and his wife Narelle lost their entire crop either directly to the fire or smoke taint in the Cudlee Creek bushfire which broke out on 20 December 2019.

It claimed a total of 25,000 hectares in the Adelaide Hills and destroyed dozens of homes, sheds, vehicles, vineyards and countless livestock in its path.

Now, the research project at the university aims to investigate the impacts of climate change and repurpose soiled grapes for brandy production in Australia.

“I’m investigating the use of smoke tainted fruit in brandy production to assess its impact on flavour development as well as consumer acceptability,” project lead Hugh Holds said.

“Due to the time it takes to produce and mature spirits, combined with 2020 Covid-19 delays it’s still too early for any results, though the experimentally produced spirits are maturing slowly away in the university’s winery.”

Tolley donated all of his heavily tainted fruit to the research project, while fellow Hills label VNTLPR also gave some of their smoke-tainted grapes.

The batch will be assessed in early 2022 once it has matured in the barrel for one year.

“This should give us an impression of how the spirit will develop as a fully matured product,” he said.

Smoke-tainted wine is commonly described as having an unpleasant ashy, burnt or chemical-like taste.

Removing the smoke flavour can be done through activated carbon fining, though this often destroys the wine’s good characteristics as well.

If successful, Holds and Tolley hope a purposefully smoky-flavoured brandy or gin would be desirable among consumers and could aid others in bushfire-affected areas whose grapes would be otherwise useless.

The Tolleys also have another link with brandy. In the 1890s, the Phoenix Distillery in Stepney was owned by Simon’s ancestors Douglas Tolley and his brother Ernest alongside London distiller Thomas Scott. Together they ran Tolley, Scott & Tolley (TST), a leading brandy producer.

“I’m proud of my family’s history and so if it’s something we can go back to we’ll do it,” Tolley said.