Wine Talk

Snooth User: JonDerry

Unfiltered Chardonnay?

Posted by JonDerry, Sep 1, 2012.

In my continuing fascination with Chardonnay (or it could be more like a streak), I was out to dinner with my folks and we happened to go out to King's fish house, basically my dad's favorite restaurant. It's always been a bit of a tough play for wine, though not without a few somewhat interesting selections. Was also interesting how I might have looked at that same menu in the past and not even really considered the white wines.

Anyway, tonight I arrived just before my folks and decided to call for a bottle just before they arrived, took a chance with an 09' Newton Chardonnay (Unfiltered). It was definitely an interesting wine, Napa County AVA. When it came out is was pretty damn cold, frosting the glass, got a good amount of oak impressions, and almost no sweetness from the fruit, but not necessarily very dry either, it was a kind of sourness that I seem to remember somewhere that pervaded, but a little something more than the green apple/pear, lemon potpourri. Or maybe it was just more towards apple/pear than the last couple of chards I've been digging lately, which have been pretty lemon driven.

It just got me to thinking, what flavors would I be more likely to come accross in an unfiltered chardonnay? I hear a lot of producers talking about their wine being unfined and unfiltered, which is always interesting. Guess this was maybe the beginnings of the organic claim?

When I went to google "unfined and unfiltered" an interesting article came up, by a random wine blogger nonetheless.

Perhaps he gets to the heart of the matter here:


Some quick definitions: “fining” is the addition to the wine of a tiny amount of some substance — usually a protein such as that found in gelatin, egg whites, or milk — that binds with something in the wine the winemaker finds objectionable and then falls to the bottom of the tank or barrel, allowing the clear wine to be racked off the fining lees. “Filtration” is the process of passing the wine under pressure through some medium, in order to directly remove something undesirable to the winemaker. Both of these processes can be employed to improve clarity. Fining (and some types of filtration) can modify the wine’s tannin structure. Filtration can be used to completely remove yeast and bacteria, ensuring that a properly-filtered wine won’t re-ferment in the bottle. Specific types of filtration can remove alcohol or volatile acidity. And oh yeah, there’s more — lots more.

Fining and filtration are tools that the experienced wine craftsman can use judiciously to correct minor flaws in a wine, to make a wine “better.” A non-interventionist demagogue may argue that employing any of these tools invariably makes a wine worse, but I believe this point of view would be demolished in a blind tasting of certain wines by a broad cross section of knowledgeable wine consumers. Simply, some slightly flawed winesare improved by fining and/or filtration.

Interesting stuff to ponder...


Reply by JonDerry, Sep 1, 2012.

Actually, this blog post I came accross is really informative, the guy seeming to have plenty of winemaking experience. Here's another point that should be highlighted, though it seems obvious, sometimes there's the "elusive obvious", which this might be to some.

 It was decided that there was too much commercial risk involved to bottle the large-volume production wines without fining and filtration, especially since only a vanishingly small fraction of these bottles would see more than 3 years of age before being consumed. Meaning that after 3 years and beyond, unfined and unfiltered white wines generally retain slightly more fruit.

Reply by GregT, Sep 1, 2012.


Jon - the fining and filtering doesn't have so much to do with taste even though some people assure you they can tell a difference. When someone tells me that, I immediately position myself close to the nearest source of fresh oxygen in case I need to be resuscitated later due to the gas. Notice that he said even the "professionals" (don't get me started) could only detect a small difference. That's just about what I would expect. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that there was no statistically significant difference.

Fining is actually a much older practice than filtering because people didn't have the materials to do good filtering until quite recently, like 40 years ago, whereas fining was practiced by the Romans.

Why did they do it? To remove flavors? Nope. They did it because the little pieces of yeast, grape skins, and other organic matter can rot or start to ferment in your wine. So it's better to take that stuff out. Which is what he says.

Some of those particles in fact do provide some flavor, and it's for that reason that winemakers stir the lees when making Chardonnay - the lee-stirring adds both texture and flavor to what can be a rather insipid grape on its own. But once it goes into a bottle, you want the wine to be stable, so you usually want the particulate out of the wine. If unfined wines do in fact taste and feel different from those that are fined, anything, it's because when the yeast cells die, they release their component parts and that may change the mouthfeel and flavors, much like continued lees-stirring. More on that in a minute.

But settling also happens naturally.

If you leave the wine for a long enough time, and you continually rack it, you don't really need to do much filtering or fining. In Spain, and even in the US, there are many producers who don't fine or filter their reds because the wines are in barrels for two years or more and they're repeatedly racked so the sediment pretty much settles out.

It's interesting that he distinguished between full malolactic fermentation and non or partial. Malolactic fermentation completely changes the mouthfeel of the wine, and you're going to find far greater differences between the Chardonnays that have gone thru it and those that haven't than you will from those that are filtered and/or fined and those that aren't.

There's also a dif in reds and whites regarding fining and MF. First, most all reds go thru MF anyway. Second, they can stand non-fining/filtering because the tannnis act to precipitate proteins. Third, as mentioned, many of them spend a long time in barrels before bottling, which contributes both oxygen and also offers an opportunity for solids to settle.

With whites, it's a little different. Most importantly perhaps, not all whites are put thu malolactic fermentation. Whites from warmer regions like Dry Creek or even much of the Napa valley floor may end up flabby if they go thru MF, whereas whites from Carneros or Russian River, which are cooler, or higher in the mountains of Napa, may have more acidity and consequently be able to handle the malolactic stage better. So if you're getting grapes from the hills where things are cooler, you can put them thru malo and that will allow you to forgo fining. And that Chardonnay for the Newton wine doesn't come from their Spring Mountain site. It comes from a separate site in cooler Carneros.

Problem is that a lot of Chardonnay producers, particularly in the US, also leave a slight touch of residual sugar.

To put out a wine that's unfiltered and unfined, the wine has to be stable microbiologically and all of the sugar and malic acid have to be gone. Since you almost never have zero sugar and zero malic acid, it's far more of a crapshoot than some people want to take.

If you bottle a wine unfined, unfiltered, unsulfured, unaged, and non or only partially-malolactic fermented, with a bit of RS, you end up with a chemistry experiment in a bottle.

That's even more true if the wine ever gets slightly heated. I think that's what he meant by the commercial viability. If you're putting a wine on the supermarket floor and the temps aren't regulated, the bottles are going to be doing all kinds of things and maybe even blowing up and the customers are not going to be happy. Even during transit, the wine may be exposed to nice, warm temps.

And then there are the cosmetic reasons for some fining - some producers think customers want their wine to be very clear and sparkly.

Don't forget, all the self-proclaimed experts and teachers tell novices that they're supposed to use a clear glass and before tasting, observe the color of the wine. Since they don't know what they're looking for, or why, they end up talking about clarity and "legs" and other nonsense.

BTW - good article all in all.

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 1, 2012.

Great insight as usual, I really don't understand this process so well. I hear about it all the time, but there are a lot of moving parts - maybe the best way is to make some wine.

Reply by zufrieden, Sep 2, 2012.

That was a great review of Malolactic Fermentation.  Here at home (British Columbia, Canada), we frequently have quite acidic Chardonnay and MF is (or should be) a fairly common practice - expecially for the unoaked, everyday white. 

Everything is a matter of taste (and, frquently enough, fashion and marketing - particularly if it is cheaper to push product out rather than age for 12-24 months in barriques).  Customers in stores where I taste wines often say they prefer the fruity, unoaked Chardonnay to its wood-aged sibling.  This may be due to their experience with wine (acquired tastes and all that) or simply a desire to taste some grapey fruitiness.  In any case, Chardonnay is a fairly neutral-flavoured grape and someone seeking a fruit flan might be temped to look elsewhere.  I prefer the nervy, northern expression of this grape and believe the natural (baseline) neutrality of Chardonnay taste is most suited to less - rather than more - ripening.

But it is indeed a matter of taste and winemaking skill.  There are excellent unoaked, warmer site Chardonnays available, but they are not my preference - unless over a ham sandwich - in the company of a snoother or two, of course.


Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 5, 2012.

So here's just a little anecdote about fining, filtering, and so on.  My wife and I went to a winery in Napa a couple years ago when we just happened to be driving by.  The proprietor drew two glasses of chardonnay from a stainless tank in the tasting room/cellaring room and gave them to us.  The wine was unfiltered and it was clear and amazing.  No oak ever, just crisp and complex and bright, with stony elements, some citrus, and some apple notes, lots of subtle flavors oak would have killed.  It didn't taste funky, or look cloudy or anything.  It could have been bottled as it was, although the winery was (for market purposes) going to blend it with some that had been in oak.  Too bad I thought.  The wine was, at that point, a year old. The grapes were picked in 2009 in Yountville.

The white grapes for that year were already picked and fermented and were in stainless vats next to the wine we drank.  2010 had the horrible heat spikes in the Valley.  She drew some of that wine and it was cloudy and unpleasant looking.  I asked what she would do with it.  She said, well, we can filter it to get some of the cloudiness out and get the color right, but it won't help that much with the taste.  She went on to explain that the main reason reds are more often unfiltered is the effect on the color--they become more transparent and lighter.  The effect on the taste--this is a woman who has been a co-owner of a winery, and married to a major winemaker in the valley for 30 years-- was, in her opinion, negligible if perceptible at all. 

So it depends on what you are going for, and what chances you want to take.  As GregT rightly points out, the chemistry of reds with their tannins is different--they pull those yeasty bits into longer polymers that drop out of the wine.  NG or either of my parents could explain the process in molecular diagrams, but that's the short version of it.  With whites, tannins aren't present in the same amounts, and the reactions don't occur, or they don't occur as much, so you have to decide what you want to do instead. My friends make reds that they never filter or fine but they rack it very carefully.  Mostly, they don't fine or filter because it's more work than it's worth at the low volume they make.  But they've used the Bonny Doon facilities and they certainly have seen other folks do it.  They don't think it has an impact on the flavor, they just don't want to go to the time and trouble.

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 5, 2012.

Think I remember you mentioning this before but it has a little more meaning to me now. Makes sense that the fining/filtering would affect the color above the taste. The only completely unoaked Chardonnay I've tried wasn't the best fruit, it was Monterey sourced, but I really don't mind oak being present, so long it's balanced.

Funny, I thought 2010 was a cooler year in the valley. If 2010 did have heat spikes, have we had the same or worse heat spikes here in 2012? I see the weather was down in in the lower 70's in Napa today, a nice little reprieve I'm sure.


Reply by napagirl68, Sep 7, 2012.

Greg T,  wonderful information, my precious tarsier.   That was very informative  and accurate.

The only negative I have with unfiltered wine is the cloudiness that can occur.  I can ignore it if the wine is good, which is the case if the wine is good!  Meaning, the filtration does not really affect the flavor much, but a crappy wine is a crappy wine, whether it is filtered or not.  But this can be a  turnoff to some, especially if it is particularly cloudy.

JD... you mentioned you couldn't taste the fruit and did taste some sourness. And you also said glass was frosty.  Too cold to taste all nuances, IMO.  Did you get time to let it warm to taste?

Reply by zufrieden, Sep 7, 2012.

Just a quick comment: I love all your comments, being as I have enough life experience to tell that you are all intelligent and thoughtful persons on the subject of wine and its many interactive subjects. However, I would like to see more tasting notes from  you, because that shows me what you really like...

Reply by JonDerry, Sep 8, 2012.

NG, I was able to taste at warmer temps since I wasn't in a rush to drink that night. The Newton was better on the cold/cooler side though, makes me think it was a little higher in alcohol than I'd like. It was fine with the seafood, even pretty good...but only in the context of being relegated to King's wine list. Probably not something I'd recommend to go out and buy like the Heitz or Liquid Farm.

Reply by JonDerry, Feb 2, 2016.

I wonder how the 2009 Newton's Unfiltered Chard is tasting these days?

So over the last few years I understand the fining/filtering process a bit better, but still some questions.

If the main importance of the racking/fining is to remove dead yeast and other matter that fall to the bottom of the barrel, why does Chardonnay then benefit from stirring on the lees, adding tannin to make the subsequent racking/fining more effective, while adding more complexity to the wine?

Why are RS and Lactic Acid such a problem for Chardonnay? How do wineries like Stony Hill, who block ML get the wine stabilized? I suppose careful racking and fining will take care of the dead yeast. So, in that case are RS and Lactic such an issue if the dead yeast and other material has been removed by fining?

Reply by dmcker, Feb 2, 2016.

It's always useful to read winemaker notes when you want to understand differences between product from different wineries, or even different products from the same winery.

Aside from issues on the palate, RS can be a problem if you haven't removed undead yeast cells, for example, that can then walk about and burst to life upon consuming their favorite food. I think Greg covered malic acid and MF pretty well way up this thread, and I also touched on this when talking about Muga and fining vs. filtering in another thread.

MF has a huge effect on the final product. Fining has more subtle but important effects. Filtering has differing effects depending on who you talk to. So it's good to know when these are being done or not. Or if the winemaker lets all suspensions descend on their own over a greater length of time.

Chard isn't the only white these are key for. How many muscadets have you consumed that were described as 'sur lies'? And how long champers lies on their lees before disgorgement is also a trade secret-ish practice when looking at differences between houses and their offerings. Etc., etc.

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