It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
That's how producers in Tasmania's Huon Valley and D'Entrecasteaux Channel felt two years ago as they contemplated the potential loss of their high quality 2019 vintage.
Win or lose, the outcome was already beyond their control, due to the prolonged summer bushfire activity on the margins of these small districts south of Hobart.
"When vineyards and wine grapes are exposed to smoke, it can lead to wines acquiring undesirable aromas and flavours referred to as smoke taint," Jim Chatto explains.
According to the former Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year, the characteristics can be detected at surprisingly low levels of concentration in smoke-tainted wines.
Consumers typically describe them as smoky, burnt, ashy or medicinal.
"In extreme instances, they make wines so unpleasant they're commercially unsaleable," adds the renowned Pinot-phile.
Grape growers and winemakers the world over fear the adverse effects of smoke taint in wines. Research published in Australia prior to the fire-impacted 2018-2019 season revealed smoke taint had cost the wine industry as much as $100 million per year since 2003.
Meanwhile, its exact causes are not fully understood.
A 2009 fact sheet published by the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation states the various smoke compounds produced by bushfires appear to enter a vine through its leaves. These compounds - more than 3000 of them - are then translocated to the grapes themselves.
Subsequent post-harvest fermentation leads to the creation of smoke-tainted wines.
More recent studies by La Trobe University's Dr Ian Porter suggest smoke compounds compromise grape and wine quality by coming into contact with individual grape berries. These compounds somehow latch on to grape sugars during fermentation into wine.
Wind speed, wind direction and distance from a fire are all key risk factors. Brief exposure to dense fresh smoke also seems more of a problem than prolonged exposure to peripheral smoke haze.
"As a winemaker with more than 25 years' experience, I'd encountered bushfires and issues associated with smoke taint on previous occasions in other parts of Australia," Chatto notes.
"But 2019 was the first time I'd ever had to address them with grapes in my own vineyard. I reckon we had about eight tonnes of Pinot Noir awaiting harvest. Some of it was the best we'd ever produced on our tiny little vineyard here in the Huon Valley. It should have been a great vintage.
"We lost the lot. The irony is that our Pinot bunches on the vines were really beautiful. They looked perfectly healthy. But when we carried out a small trial pick and had the grapes carefully analysed by the Australian Wine Research Institute - and by La Trobe University - the results revealed our fruit had had very significant exposure to bushfire smoke.
"Our worst fears were confirmed when I conducted several small micro-ferments in my own winery. The wines produced were horrific - totally undrinkable."
With their vintage in the Huon Valley completely ruined before harvest had even begun, Chatto and his wife Daisy began to wonder what could be done to enable them to remain financially viable through the coming year.
"Luckily, some wonderful industry friends from the north of the state reached out, allowing us to purchase parcels of their precious fruit," Chatto says.
"We've crafted three beautiful wines, altogether worthy of the high standards we set for the Chatto label."
In mid-2020, the couple released three small volumes of their precious 2019 Pinot Noir. They comprised 112 dozen bottles from Bird Vineyard at Pipers Brook and 230 dozen from Marion's Vineyard, a site first planted over 40 years ago in the Tamar Valley.
An additional 555 dozen bottles of a Tasmanian blend were created from Bird, Marion's and Goaty Hill (Tamar) Pinot Noir.
"One of the most nervous times I've ever had in my whole career was when I left Marion Semmens a carton of our Marion's Pinot to see if she approved of it," Chatto grins.
"She did." (Laughter.)
Indeed, all the wines have sold like hot cakes. Only a small quantity remains. Come April, there will be the welcome release of a handful of other new wines.
Right now, one of them has its maker in a real quandary - a red Burgundy that Chatto created in Pinot Noir's European heartland during the warm, dry, low-yielding 2019 vintage. From an outstanding Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru vineyard, no less.
"Given the current COVID era, I've just to work out how to get it back here," he muses.
- Mark Smith wrote his first weekly Tasmanian wine column back in 1994. He continues to chart the successes of the state's small scale, cool climate wine industry with contributions to some of Australia's leading industry publications.