FD: Wine Columnn January 28, 2009

Filtration caters to consumer demands for clear wine

Over the clatter of metal legs sliding across the concrete floor, the small pump wheezed and puffed as it sucked red wine from one glass jar and pushed it into another.

Four of us — Sal Sassano, Dwight Marney, Brian Soule and yours truly — spent Saturday afternoon washing and lugging five-gallon carboys and racking our syrah, a process that separates the almost-finished wine from the microscopic sediment left after pressing.

Because the wine won’t be filtered before it’s bottled in early summer, we’ll rack it gently several times over the next four or five months, waiting patiently between each racking and letting the wine sit quietly while the sediment falls out.

Before the era of microfilters, it was common to find some sediment in your wine bottle.

That’s one reason indentation (called a punt) is on the bottom on wine bottles — it’s designed to trap the sediment so it doesn’t pour out with the wine.

But today’s finicky consumer demands a clear wine and most winemakers, who have many reasons for filtering, oblige by clarifying their wines. One method is to push the wine through successively finer filters, down to a half-micron or so.

Winemakers also can use filtration to remove bacteria and yeast cells and protect against unwanted fermentation when the wine is bottled.

Opponents of filtering say it strips the wine of color (an older wine fades because the color-carrying sediment eventually falls out) and also steals complex-yet-subtle flavors and aromas carried by the particles.

Other methods of clarifying wines include using a fining or settling agent, which could be egg whites, diatomaceous earth, gelatin, bentonite, isinglass (made from fish bladders), the list goes on. These additives attach themselves to the sediment, which then settles out and the wine is racked, pumped off the sediment and the fining agent.

Instead of additives or filters, Sassano uses time as a clarifying agent.

Although unfiltered wines aren’t as clear as filtered wines, many wine lovers say the tiny particles, so small you can’t discern them unless you let the wine sit for months or years, provide a richness and better mouthfeel than filtered wines.

And if you’re into such things, those particles also give a wine character, a feeling you’re connected to the land and to the winemaker.

On the other side of the Earth, however, things aren’t so clear.

On the eve of what might be its largest grape harvest on record, Australia isn’t doing much celebrating.

A story by the Reuters New Service in the Tuesday edition of the International Herald Tribune (courtesy of Wine Business.com) said Australian wine imports worldwide last year slipped by 18 percent, including a whopping 26 percent drop in the U.S. market.

No matter how you look at it, that’s not good.

The immediate future isn’t bright, either, since apparently many Australian winemakers were intent on sliding into the promising China market, which also has fallen as part of the growing recession.

The leading problem, according to one Aussie winemaker interviewed by Reuters, is Australia focuses too much on low prices rather than quality wine.

“Rather than compete on good wine, great price, we need to focus ... on great wine at maybe a good price,” said Tim Kirk of the award-winning Clonakilla winery.

It’s no longer enough to flood the world wine market with low-end offerings, Kirk said.

Competition from low-wage countries such as Chile and Argentina are beating Australian at its own game.

In order to survive, the country must capitalize on its ability to produce great wines.

“Australia needs to grow up,” he said.

The Australian wineries suffering most “are the larger producers who have allowed the quality of their products to decline in a bid to meet demand,” said Aussie wine exporter Greg Corra.

That includes wineries that sneaked into the Chinese market with drastically underpriced, low-quality wines, hoping to follow later with better wine and higher prices.

“They told us don’t worry, the Chinese don’t know what they’re drinking,” Bruce March, chief winemaker at Doonkuna Winery in eastern Australia, told Reuters. “I reckon a few growers ’round here will be pulling out vines by the end of the year.”

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