Monday, January 18, 2021

I drank smoke-tainted canned wine and liked it

Sans Wine Co. makes some of the best canned wines in the country, and to prove that fact they held an online media tasting last week of three different vintages from three varieties. They wanted to prove that canned wine can last on the shelves: apparently it can, as the 2017s were just fine in 2021. I also learned something more significant.

We tasted nine canned wines: three Cabernet Sauvignons, three Carignans and three Rieslings. I'm not talented enough to interview people, taste wine and take notes all at the same time, so I tasted the wines beforehand.

My favorite wine of the nine was Sans Coyote Rock Block Poor Ranch Vineyards Mendocino County Carbonic Carignan 2018. I'll share my notes, unedited after what I later learned, out of respect for Sans owners Jake Stover and Gina Schober, who have pledged to be completely transparent about their wines.

"Much like the '17: smells fruity, red berries, a little denser. Best aroma of the three. Juicy, fruity, with enough freshness and good depth. Ambitious: this is a wine that's not just trying to be portable. But it still has the immediate appeal of a carbonic* wine."

(* "Carbonic" means carbonic maceration, a technique often used in Beaujolais that usually results in fruity, easy-to-drink wines.)

 Well, that aroma and depth of flavor I liked so much were apparently enhanced by 8 mcg/liter of smoke taint compounds, which is, according to ETS Laboratories, above the perceivable threshhold (Stover said ETS says 6 mcg/liter is the threshhold.)

Stover, who makes the wines for Sans, says their Zinfandel from the same vintage, which we didn't taste, also has smoke taint above the threshhold.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," Stover said. "It does show to us (in the Zinfandel) but it's also a lot of people's favorite wine."

Just as Stover and Schober risk some of their reputation by being honest, so am I. At professional tastings there's often a lot of one-upmanship on finding "corked" wines. I have sat with many <del>egotists</del> professionals who want to make sure everyone at the table knows they were RIGHT about that wine, and they noticed it first.

I didn't catch the smoke taint in the Carignan, and I liked it when tasting it, so I decided to double down and we drank that wine with dinner. The safe thing to do would be to say, "Oh, now I get it. Ewww!" (Something else I have seen many people do at professional tastings.) That didn't happen.

Knowing that I was consuming a smoke-tainted wine didn't change a thing: We had it with country ham and beans, and it was fine; we finished the (375 ml) can. Granted, that was smoke on smoke, but I didn't choose the meal based on the wine; it was what we were planning to have anyway. Ironically, the 2017 Sans McGill Vineyard Rutherford Riesling, which I liked on its own and which wasn't smoke-tainted, was not as good with the meal. Maybe the smoke helped the Carignan.

You could take that under advisement: if you have a wine that you believe might be smoke-tainted, maybe drink it with barbecue. But honestly, I liked it just fine on its own. 

UC Davis professor Anita Oberholster said last year that about 25 percent of people cannot detect smoke taint in wine. Perhaps I am in that 25 percent. If so, I'm really lucky, as I will be able to fully enjoy a lot of deeply discounted wine in the next couple years.

There are other possible explanations:

* The smoke taint compounds were barely over the threshhold. Perhaps I would have noticed a little more smoke taint, or I would have noticed it more in a different grape variety like Pinot Noir.

* Guaiacol compounds, like sulfites, are naturally occurring in wine grapes and oak barrels and perhaps this particular low level worked like oak staves, adding flavor without being a negative.

* Smoke taint can bind with compounds in the wine and be released months or even years after bottling. It's possible that these compounds were still bound and therefore not truly perceptible, even though they were technically over the limit.

The last caveat is an important one. Maybe if I drank the same can of wine a year later, more bound compounds would have been released and I would have noticed it. If you suspect a wine in your cellar might be smoke-tainted, it's smart to drink it sooner rather than later.

I respect Stover and Schober's honesty and suggest that you try their wines. Their business is based around making good single-vineyard wine from quality locations and adding nothing to it, not even sulfites. That may be safer in canned wines because, unlike in a bottle, there is no headspace of air below the cork or screwcap; a can can be completely oxygen-free. This is probably why they were able to prove their point. Sans wines are real wines and have vintage variation, but I noticed no deterioration over time.

Ironically, it's easier to find their wines in bottles right now because Whole Foods liked their canned Carignan enough that it asked them to bottle some up for national distribution. It's Whole Foods: after Schober pounded the pavement to get small stores to carry their relatively pricey cans (most sell for $10), the business they founded to make quality canned wines currently makes more bottled wines.

"There's a surprising amount of Carignan planted in California," Stover said. "The key is finding old vine vineyards. There's enough Carignan out there for 600,000 cases. We'll never get there." Right now they're just under 10,000 cases, bottles and cans combined.

I tried their Carignan in the bottle a few weeks ago and liked it: it's vibrant, with a tart red plum character that's both refreshing and food-friendly. I don't know if that one had smoke taint also, and since I enjoyed it I don't care.

If you want to test your own threshhold, buy the Sans Carbonic Carignan here.

Read my feature from 2017 about how a Tinder date led to this canned-wine couple.

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