Ever pick up a bottle of wine at a shop and see an obvious cloudiness with sediment floating about? These unfiltered wines aren't very common in a grocery store aisle, but if you are in a quality wine shop, you'll likely come across unfiltered wine. Choosing to filter or not filter a wine is a stylistic choice in the winemaking process. So, is one better than the other?
Understanding Clear Wine: Filtered vs. Unfiltered
While it may seem like cloudy wines are popping up everywhere and just a trend, they've been around since the beginning of winemaking. The filtering process came along much later with industrial winemaking. Prior to this, there were large and small yeast particles that would be left to settle on the bottom of the vessel before pouring a wine into a glass. When the mechanisms for filtering became available in the cellar, many commercial winemakers started to incorporate this step primarily because consumers preferred the clean, clear look. Along with giving the wine a crisp, homogenous look, filtering removes the entirety of any lingering yeasts and bacteria, which can occasionally trigger a re-fermentation in the bottle. So, in short, filtering can stabilize the wine to a degree, ensuring it is more or less unchanged from bottling to shelf. Unfortunately, this process of stripping the wine of its living agents can leave a wine a little dull and lifeless.
Today, all commercial wine continues to be filtered while natural wines remain unfiltered in keeping with the minimal intervention ethos. Often, unfiltered wines utilize the process of racking, which only leaves behind the bulky sediment. The fine lees remain, which is what can causes cloudiness. Along with the blurred juice look, the fine lees actually contribute to texture, flavor, and shelf stability. While the wines can be a bit more delicate when it comes to changes in temperature, their living nature also helps to keep the wines fresh and alive when you consume them.
The Filtering Process
Filtration is part of a larger clarification process and can have numerous steps. In the case of a commercially filtered wine, the wine is passed through a series of screens that act as a sieve to catch large and small dead yeast cells and remaining grape must.
Often, this process is followed by fining. Fining is the addition of various substances that act as a magnet for proteins, yeast cells, and sediment to bind to. Once these clumps form, they sink to the bottom of the vessel and are removed from the wine. Common fining agents include dried fish bladders, bentonite, egg whites, and casein. Ever wonder why wines sometimes have a "vegan" stamp on them? It's because of the fining process. The vegan stamp doesn't necessarily indicate that the wine wasn't fined, but it does ensure that if it was, it didn't involve fish bladders or egg whites.
The racking process is also part of the larger clarification step in the cellar. However, it doesn't incorporate outside additions or invasive equipment, rather it relies solely on gravity. The largest sediment settles naturally on the bottom of the tank or barrel. The wine is then pumped out, leaving the bulky lees behind. The fine lees remain in the wine, and it is bottled. This is the much less intensive option within the spectrum of wine clarification.
What to Expect From an Unfiltered Wine
Unfiltered wines tend to have a little more bounce in their step. Depending on the fermentation and the racking process, the wine may not actually appear super cloudy. If it's been sitting on the shop shelf, you may notice varying bits of lees at the bottom of the bottle, or maybe a bit of sludge along the neck and on the bottom of the cork. On the other hand, you may find a particular wine to be extra murky looking.
When it comes to pouring a glass, you can choose to give the bottle a gentle swirl and incorporate the textural bits or leave them at the bottom. If you really want to avoid any floaters in your glass, you can opt to decant the wine. Generally though, if the bottle has been left upright for a bit, the fine lees naturally falls to the bottom of the bottle and can easily be avoided.
The fine lees ultimately help keep the wine alive and vibrant, and that comes across on the palate. If you have only ever drank commercial wine before and take a sip of natural unfiltered wine, you'll notice a liveliness that you likely haven't experienced. It's kind of like going from eating a strawberry out of season to eating a perfectly ripe, sun kissed berry straight off the plant. It's energized and alive.
Cloudy or Clear Wine?
It really comes down to personal preference with filtered or unfiltered wines. Often though, people prefer what they know and are skeptical about what they don't. If you've never tried an unfiltered wine, do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle with an open mind. Your palate may just convert you.