Uncorking Unfined and Unfiltered Wines
Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine
For those who follow the natural wine movement, or who may be interested in natural wines, two terms crop up regularly: unfined and unfiltered. At first glance, the terms allude to a healthier, natural product. Understanding the role of finning and filtering in winemaking, along with current labeling regulations, can help you decide if seeking out unfined and unfiltered wines is right for you.
What is fining? What does it do for the wine?
Winemaking is a messy business, with many steps between grape cluster and dinner toast. Early on in a new wine’s life, small, leftover particulate matter from the grape pressing and fermentation processes make the wine cloudy, much like raw apple cider. Over time, thanks to gravity, the particles fall out of the wine forming a fine film on the bottom of the tank or barrel. The winemaker siphons off the clean wine in a process called racking, leaving these particles behind.
It can take months or even years for the suspended particles to drop out naturally. This extended time adds significant costs to commercial winemaking.
Fining speeds up the settling process through additives. The suspended particles carry positive and negative charges. Additives have the opposite charge of the particles, attracting them to each other. Both the additive and the particulate matter bind together and settle out of the wine.
The term ‘additive’ may raise red flags for health-conscious consumers, but these tend to be natural products used by winemakers for centuries, including egg whites, gelatin, and clay. Once the wine is clean, the winemaker removes the good wine and leaves the leftover gunk behind, including the additive.
If you have an unfined wine, you may notice sediment on the bottom of your bottle. This sediment is harmless, but unfined wines can benefit from decanting.
What is filtering? What does it do for the wine?
Filtering happens during the bottling process. This final winemaking step removes possible spoilage microbes to ensure shelf-stable wines. The wine gets pushed through a filter material that traps leftover yeast and other microbes, allowing the clean wine to pass through for bottling.
Most commercial wines undergo filtering as the industry standard, but for some wines foregoing filtering isn’t an option. Sweet wines with residual sugar (e.g., some Rieslings) must be filtered. Sugar serves as a potential food source for microbes in the bottle, and the wines would likely explode if they weren’t filtered.
Indeed, every so often you read about an unfortunate producer who recalls their wines because of bottles blowing up. Filtering prevents this headache.
Why would you want an unfined, unfiltered wine?
Fining and filtering help create clean, stable wines. But there are those who would argue that these processes change a wine’s sensory profile, dulling its natural texture and aroma. If you have a curious palate, it would be an interesting experiment to see if you prefer one style of winemaking over another - all in the name of science, of course.
But before you get started, know that ‘unfined’ and ‘unfiltered’ are unregulated terms.
Any winery can stick these words on a label as a marketing or branding tactic. Additionally, some wines that are unfined and unfiltered, may not have that information on the bottle. If enjoying unfined and unfiltered wines is important to you, it’s worth seeking out reputable producers.
Finally, realize that if the wine is truly unfined and unfiltered, the winemaker possesses some serious skills. She has confidence in the wine at a microbial level and lovingly nurtured the wine to maturity - probably over several years - making that bottle extra special.
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Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and a long-time lover of all things fermented grape. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.