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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 a wine.

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.




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