Nearly two years ago I posted on the causes of a hot finish, and on headaches and sulfites. Back then, I promised a third installment of “Boring Crap You Never Wanted To Know In This Much Detail” — “Unfined & Unfiltered: Philosophy Meets Reality”
Well, since I am gearing up for bottling I’m thinking about the topic (as I do every year). This is not the same post I would have done two years ago, but a promise is a promise, so here goes…
It seems like it has been a while since the question of whether unfined and unfiltered wines are “better” than their more processed cousins was the topic du jour in the wine mediaspace. Maybe the topic has been talked to death. Maybe writers and marketers alike have decided there is no “there” there. Maybe consumers have read all there is to read, and tasted enough wines to have made up their own minds.
Google “unfined unfiltered wine” and most of the media references returned are from 2006, way back when I was first thinking of writing this post. But the subject has not gone away — my old buddy Clark Smith recently posted on the subject in his GrapeCrafter blog. Clark gives a possible explanation for the proliferation of these claims in his bit: these days “…no sane winemaker seeks to educate the outside world on interventionist practices.” (Emphasis mine.)
Marketers clearly have not let go of the concept — it looks to me like 80% of the search returns on “unfined unfiltered” are descriptions of specific wines (full disclosure: our wines are probably in there somewhere– we don’t fine or filter as a rule, though rules are made to be broken as I elaborate below). As an example of how “unfined and unfiltered” are used in marketing, the good folks at North Berkeley Imports put it this way:
“Many… wines are often bottled unfined and unfiltered (in French, non-filtré). …Our experience has shown that unfined/unfiltered wines will often taste fresher, with more purity of fruit, than wines that have gone through this process. We also believe that this natural sediment helps to nourish wine over time, which can help it age gracefully while in your cellar. …In short, however, we seek first and foremost natural wines, which is why you’ll find many unfined and unfiltered wines in our portfolio.”
Notice how the word “natural” appears a number of times, creating the subtext that fining and filtering a wine is somehow “un-natural.” There are surely lots of people out there who believe this, and more — people who have come up with some ideological and demagogic construction of wine “purity” — and called it “non-interventionist.”
Well, I’ve got to say, y’all are entitled to your own opinion. But let me acquaint y’all with a little aphorism I picked up during my misspent youth in Texas: “opinions are like [a certain body part] — everybody’s got one, and they all stink to someone.” In my “Hands-On Winemaking” post from last year I took a pretty good swing at this (in my worldview) ridiculous “non-interventionist” construct. All I’m posting about today is fining and filtering wines — or not.
Some quick definitions: “fining” is the addition to the wine of a tiny amount of some substance — usually a protein such as that found in gelatin, egg whites, or milk — that binds with something in the wine the winemaker finds objectionable and then falls to the bottom of the tank or barrel, allowing the clear wine to be racked off the fining lees. “Filtration” is the process of passing the wine under pressure through some medium, in order to directly remove something undesirable to the winemaker. Both of these processes can be employed to improve clarity. Fining (and some types of filtration) can modify the wine’s tannin structure. Filtration can be used to completely remove yeast and bacteria, ensuring that a properly-filtered wine won’t re-ferment in the bottle. Specific types of filtration can remove alcohol or volatile acidity. And oh yeah, there’s more — lots more.
Fining and filtration are tools that the experienced wine craftsman can use judiciously to correct minor flaws in a wine, to make a wine “better.” A non-interventionist demagogue may argue that employing any of these tools invariably makes a wine worse, but I believe this point of view would be demolished in a blind tasting of certain wines by a broad cross section of knowledgeable wine consumers. Simply, some slightly flawed wines are improved by fining and/or filtration.
Now I can hear some passive-aggressive “critics” — with no money tied up in grapes and barrels — saying “so don’t make flawed wines.” To this I say “bite me.” You try this, genius. It ain’t as easy as I make it look.
Don’t get me wrong– fining and filtration do have tradeoffs. Years ago I did research for a moderately-large producer of white wines. Standard procedure was to finish the wines with Bentonite, with or without a little bit of casein, and to sterile-filter the wines into the bottle (especially when the malolactic fermentation was incomplete). I did years of aging trials on malo-complete wines where I would split the lot and rack half straight to bottle, and finish the other half as we would in the commercial production. The wines were aged side-by-side and tasted at 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years by a group of trained professionals.
First let me say there was never unanimity, and often only a moderate amount of consistency among the preferences of the tasters. This suggests foremost that the differences between the wines were small. Second, all the unfined/unfiltered wines threw more or less sediment over time, and a few threw increasing amounts of sediment. Third, in most of the wines it was generally agreed that by year 3 the unfined/unfiltered wines retained slightly more fruit, and had slightly lighter color (which was quantifiable in the spectrophotometer)– emphasis on the “slightly” for both.
As a result the decision was taken that certain 100% malolactic lots that might actually see long aging in the marketplace could be bottled without filtration. It was decided that there was too much commercial risk involved to bottle the large-volume production wines without fining and filtration, especially since only a vanishingly small fraction of these bottles would see more than 3 years of age before being consumed. And of course wines that were not 100% ML could not be bottled unfiltered, as re-growth of the bacteria in the bottle could produce haze at unacceptable levels, produce “off” aromas, and yield enough CO2 to render the wine fizzy – potentially to the point that pressure inside the bottle could push corks, and perhaps even break the bottle. This involved excessive commercial risk, including liability issues.
At Westwood I don’t make any whites, and all my reds have no residual sugar, are 100% ML-complete, and are aged long enough in barrels that they should be stable to microbial activity and precipitation. Except in an experimental setting, I take special care in the fermenter to assure that the wines’ tannins have the structure I want to see in the finished wine. I don’t fine or filter Westwood wines because I don’t have to. And rule number one in my winemaking philosophy is “never do anything to the wine you don’t have to.”
That said, if I think a wine is too cloudy I will filter it. If a wine plates positive for Brettanomyces I will sterile-filter it — I don’t like Brett in the bottle and consider it a serious flaw at any level. And if a wine is slightly flawed but in my opinion good enough in every other dimension, I will correct that flaw rather than lose a ton of money trying to sell the wine into a saturated bulk market.
If that’s a deal-breaker for you, so be it — it’s a free country and I respect your choice. But don’t criticize me for my choices, or I will call you on your BS.