Ever since Robert Parker railed against overly filtered wine in his 1999 Wine Buyer’s Guide, we’ve seen ‘unfiltered’ become another of the supposed gauges of quality in boutique wine production. While Parker was right to rail, the reaction to his criticism was predictable. Why is the world so reactionary? Why do consumers now think that because one wine is manipulated less than another that it is superior?
Great Burgundy wines can be produced either way, with and without fining and filtering. These practices themselves do not a great wine maker. But they are important tools, and thus important decisions that wine-makers must make.
After fermentation, yeast, bacteria and vegetal material stay in suspension making the new wine cloudy. As the wine ages, these particles sink to the bottom of the barrel or tank, producing sediment, the lees. When this settling is not enough to clear the wine completely, winemakers will fine and/or filter the wine to make it brighter.
In addition to clarifying the wine, fining and filtering also stabilize it. It is not always enough for a wine to be visually clear. Certain particles, if present in excess (like tannins and proteins) can become insoluble over time and make the wine cloud up in the bottle. Fining, in particular, removes excess tannins and proteins.
For white burgundy wine, milk proteins, isinglass (from the air bladders of some fish) and bentonite (a type of clay) are used as fining agents, stirred into young wine to grab and bind big particles and help them sink. They are particularly good at removing proteins that might otherwise, like cooked egg white, coagulate if a wine gets too warm.
Red wines don’t present the same problems with proteins because during fermentation tannins react with and precipitate proteins. So fining is used in red wines more to reduce the need for filtration. Fining agents are used in red wine more to remove excess harsh tannins. Common fining agents for red wines are egg white, gelatin or milk. After fining, the wine needs to be racked to remove the fining lees.
While fining has been a technique in wine making since early times, filtration has only been a current practice for about 50 years. The advantage of filtration is that it can clarify a cloudy wine quickly. The disadvantage of filtration is that it can remove much more than just the particles that cause cloudiness. Robert Parker was right, the abuse of filtration can denature a wine.
Given this basic understanding, it’s clear that winemakers would be foolhardy to categorically declare that they will or will not fine and filter. There is no question that a stable well-made wine, bottled by gravity, with the lees undisrupted by the phases of the moon, is a thing of beauty and arguably the best presentation of a great wine. But how many burgundy wines merit this treatment? And how many vintages are healthy and stable enough to allow it?
The goal, first and foremost, of making wine is to transform healthy grapes into healthy wine. Fining and filtration are tools for the wine-maker to achieve this. To forego an operation that would ultimately benefit a wine seems a folly and a risk not worth taking lightly.
About Winery – Elden Selections is much more than just a place to buy French burgundy wines. You can buy Burgundy anywhere.
But it’s nearly always that same Burgundy. French burgundy wines that have been rated and created by the industry and priced accordingly. And what’s worse, despite those prices, a lot of these wines will break your heart with mediocrity. Burgundy is a minefield, and many a wine lover has been scared away.