Ask the Master of Wine:
"Are wineries that tout their bottlings as 'unfiltered, unfined' using these terms as a marketing ploy or do unfiltered wines add distinctive taste characteristics?" (May 21, 2003)
Wine & Spirits magazine has been running a series of articles
by North American Masters of Wine. The editor/publisher, Joshua Greene,
has graciously allowed me to reprint these Q & A pieces.
"Are wineries that tout their bottlings as 'unfiltered, unfined'
using these terms as a marketing ploy or do unfiltered wines add distinctive
taste characteristics? It would seem that not filtering wines might be
a cause of undesirable bacterial growth." Dennis Bramnick
|Christopher Cree, MW, is the owner of Clinton Wine and Gourmet,
a retail shop located in Clinton, New Jersey, and Wine Experts LLC,
a wine consulting and education business.
Christopher Cree, MW, replies:
The process of fining and filtering wines has been a hot topic in recent
years, with much of the conversation taking the form of fairly harsh criticism
of these treatments. Yet there is more than one side to the story.
Fining is a process in which a clarifying agent is added to bind with
or absorb elements that are suspended in wine, causing them to precipitate.
Filtering passes a wine through a series of pads or membranes. Both serve
to clarify and stabilize a wine by removing microbial and bacterial elements
and other particulate matter. These can include tannins and anthocyanins
or yeasts and other micro-organisms that can cause cloudiness, deposits
or spoilage later on in a wine's life.
Many wines will stabilize on their own if given enough time to settle
naturally; wines that are produced from healthy grapes, then stored and
handled properly during their fermentation and maturation generally require
the least manipulation. Allowing the wines to slowly settle, then racking
them off the deposits may provide ample stability. Other wines may require
additional processing, including fining and/or filtering, to achieve stability.
In the production of large-scale, value-priced wines, it often isn't practical
to take the time and expense to naturally stabilize them. The trade off
may be some loss of flavour in exchange for price or shelf stability.
The decision whether to fine and filter doesn't just apply to lower-priced
wines, however. Sweet wines, including some of the finest in the world,
whose residual sugar levels raise the risk for spoilage after bottling,
as well as wines that haven't gone through malolactic fermentation, can
require fining or filtration to protect them from problems after bottling.
In years when weather conditions are less than perfect, winemakers will
evaluate on a case-by-case basis what techniques will be needed to make
the best wines and maintain stability. Fining and filtering can also reduce
the need for other options, such as use of sulfur dioxide, to stabilize
These treatments, while beneficial in many ways, do pose the risk that
some of the good qualities in a wine will be lost with the bad. In most
cases, it is not an absolute decision whether or not to fine or filter,
but rather one of degree. Winemakers have many options available with
regard to the types of filtration or fining agents they employ, and those
options can be tailored to be as gentle or intrusive as necessary to obtain
desired stability and clarity. The challenge for winemakers is to balance
the need for making wines that are stable and aesthetically acceptable
with trying to intervene as little as possible to preserve flavor and
aromas that can be easily stripped if a wine is overmanipulated.
In the end, it is fair to say that stable, healthy wines, handled as
gently as possible throughout their production, often retain more of their
flavours than their fined and filtered counterparts. By putting the terms
"unfined and unfiltered" on their labels, wineries can promote
a winemaking regimen they feel adds something to the quality of their
wines. With this in mind, the terms unfined and unfiltered can have a
legitimate place on wine labels, as long as we remember that the absence
of such terms doesn't necessarily indicate a wine of lower quality.