Could smoke taint in wine be removed by reverse osmosis?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Could smoke taint in wine be removed by reverse osmosis?

—Roberto, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Dear Roberto,

Reverse osmosis (sometimes called “RO”) is a method of filtration by which wine passes through an extremely fine filter that separates water and ethanol from tannins and the components responsible for pigments, flavors and aromas. Depending on the goal, one of the separated components is reduced before the elements are put back together.

For example, RO is sometimes used to reduce alcohol content. It can also be used to reduce water content in order to concentrate flavors. It’s even been used to diminish the presence of flaws, including brettanomyces, volatile acidity and, yes, smoke taint.

I checked in with Napa-based Wine Spectator tasting coordinator Augustus Weed, who has been covering California’s wine country wild fires and the science of smoke taint for years. “According to the Australian Wine Research Institute, RO can be effective in removing smoke compounds,” he says. “But smoke taint is tricky, and it may return in the wine over time. The process can also strip some of the wine's flavors.”

Winemakers that use RO might choose to adapt their winemaking style to negate this effect by boosting fruit flavors. But Weed notes that, because smoke compounds are concentrated on the skins of grapes, the most effective method of minimizing the effects of smoke taint is limiting skin contact during the winemaking process.

—Dr. Vinny

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