It seems like it has been a while since the question of whether unfined and unfiltered wines are “better” than their more processed cousins was the topic du jour in the wine media space. Maybe the topic has been talked to death. Maybe writers and marketers alike have decided there is no “there” there. Maybe consumers have read all there is to read, and tasted enough wines to have made up their own minds.

Nah.

“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 wines are improved by fining and/or filtration.

Now I can hear some passive-aggressive “critics” — with no money tied up in grapes and barrels — saying “so don’t make flawed wines.” To this I say “bite me.” You try this, genius. It ain’t as easy as I make it look.

At Westwood I don’t make any whites, and all my reds have no residual sugar, are 100% ML-complete, and are aged long enough in barrels that they should be stable to microbial activity and precipitation. Except in an experimental setting, I take special care in the fermenter to assure that the wines’ tannins have the structure I want to see in the finished wine. I don’t fine or filter Westwood wines because I don’t have to. And rule number one in my winemaking philosophy is “never do anything to the wine you don’t have to.”

That said, if I think a wine is too cloudy I will filter it. If a wine plates positive for Brettanomyces I will sterile-filter it — I don’t like Brett in the bottle. And if a wine is slightly flawed but in my opinion good enough in every other dimension, I will correct that flaw rather than lose a ton of money trying to sell the wine into a saturated bulk market.

This is an abbreviated version of the original blog that was posted 27 June 2009 by John Kelly on his blog: “notes from the winemaker”.