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? Some in Burgundy hold strong and long-established opinions on both sides of this debate, such as one producer who is quoted as saying “Fining and filtering is like torturing someone, then asking if they are happy.” Others believe strongly that it removes harsh flavours and stabilises a wine. Let’s give the arguments some context here and explore what’s going on.
Fining is a process as traditional as the art of winemaking itself. It is a simple practice, which comes towards the end of the wine’s journey from hillside to bottle – just before filtration (if it occurs) and just after racking (the separating of sediment from the wine and blending). Filtration, on the other hand, is a relatively recent introduction (at least in winemaking terms) and began around 40 years ago.
The need (disputed by some) is that 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, or lees. When this settling is not enough to clear the wine completely, winemakers will fine and/or filter the wine to make it brighter and to stabilize it. It is not always enough for a wine to be visually clear. If present in excess, certain particles 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 wines, milk proteins, isinglass (from the swim bladder of the sturgeon) 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 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. After fining, the wine needs to be racked to remove the fining lees.
Neither fining nor filtering is any guarantee of quality – and nor is omitting either process. But it is one of the great joys of the hobby for enophiles to discuss the best substances for fining, the amounts and the methods of filtration. As ever, only dedicated drinking and appreciation of the wines in the mouth and on the nose can really decide the matter to anyone’s individual satisfaction.
Many winemakers use fining in order to minimise the need for filtration, and sometimes remove it altogether. Those who do not use fining will cite the fact that it has the potential to take out tannins in red wines and some flavour molecules in whites, thus reducing mouthfeel. Some producers add an extra year of aging to achieve what others would get from fining their wines, namely the settling and removal of sediment and the development of extra finesse.
There are many fine examples of wines from Bourgogne which are both unfined and unfiltered; in this category, Elden Selections proudly offer the Domaine Pierre Naigeon Gevrey-Chambertin ‘En Sylvie’ 2018, and also the excellent red wines of Domaine Jean Fery. Another producer stocked by Elden – Domaine Mouton – uses a light ‘Kieselghur’ filtration (using a type of earth rich in silica) before bottling unfined.
There is evidence that larger chains of retailers are moving more towards unfined, unfiltered wines, but even the best palates in the business sometimes have difficulty discerning any difference. The debate over whether fining with products such as egg whites can cause any allergic reactions in certain susceptible individuals is also as yet unproven.
The quality of the wine, far from being associated with either filtration or non-filtration, is much more closely tied to the quality of the filtration procedure itself, and the right pressures being used. Whether or not a producer will want to polish their wines and add further shape to them is a matter of personal taste, (as is the consumer’s decision to buy or not), and along the way is a joyful journey of sampling, tasting and discussion – a pleasure and the rasion d’être for the wine enthusiast.