We’ve all had the occasion to find a little sediment in our wine now and again. Or maybe you’ve noticed that the wine in your glass is not necessarily transparent, that the wine is cloudy. Depending on the treatments the wine received before, during, and after the fermentation process, a bit of residue in the your glass can be a positive or negative sign.
On one hand, a little cloudiness or sediment can denote a laissez-faire winemaking style. The winemaker, in other words, attempts to retain as much character in the final product by not fining or filtering the wine before bottling it.
On the other hand, sediment can be the harbinger of problems. A lot can be discerned from a simple visual tour of the wine you are drinking.
First, pour yourself a glass of wine. It can be red or white, young or old, dry or sweet. The glass should be clean. The environment should be well lit. If possible, have a clean white piece of paper on hand. Next hold the glass of wine in your line of sight. Examine the color: is it colorless, golden, amber, orange, pink, red, purple, or black?
Now tilt the glass at an angle. Position the glass a few inches above the white piece of paper. Examine the rim of the wine where the wine is thinnest. Follow the wine to the center of the glass where the color is more dense. What color is the rim of the wine? What is the color at the center? Do you notice a glossy character to the surface of the wine, or is the clarity kind-of dull? Is there any sediment?
Dullness in the clarity of a wine can be a sign of a hand-crafted product or one with flaws. Sediment can indicate that the wine has not been filtered. Wines that are not filtered typically have some mention of this on the label, it alerts the consumer to potential sediment in the bottle. Most wines produced today are filtered before they are bottled. Prior to filtering they are often fined.
Fining a wine is done by adding one or more products to the wine in order to draw out particular elements within the wine. Popular fining agents include Bentonite, egg whites, gelatin-based chemicals, and other items. When added to wine, these products bind with specific elements within the wine and literally help them fall to the bottom of the storage container. The clean wine is subsequently drawn off, racked, to a clean container. If the wine is to be filtered, it will happen just before the wine is bottled.
Some winemakers will not manipulate, fine, or filter their wines. Additionally, most wines are protected with sulfur just before being bottled (as well as throughout the winemaking process). Sulfur acts as kind of anti-bacterial cloak which protects the wine from what would ordinarily be a rapid decline toward vinegar.
Even if a wine is fined, filtered and protected with sulfur, it is not necessarily a guarantee that the wine in your glass is the wine that the winemaker intended it to be.
Truth be told, a dullness in the appearance of wine can also denote how the wine was treated after it was bottled. Storing a white wine in a warm environment – your trunk in the afternoon Napa sun, for instance – could potentially cause proteins in the wine to bind up and make the wine appear cloudy when you go to drink it.
Getting back to the examination of the wine itself, one can determine quite a bit of information about a wine from its appearance. The major elements of a wine’s essential characteristics are based on the variety of wine grapes used. White wine from a Chardonnay grape will never be dark purple. The same logic does not necessarily carry over to red grapes, however, there are white wines and pink wines made from red grapes.
Simply put, the longer that red/black grapes remain in contact with the juice the darker a wine can potentially get. Typical maceration times range from hours – for rose wines – to one month or more – for deep, dark wines. The length of time that the juice and macerated grape skins are in contact with one another can be expressed in terms of extraction. The more extraction that occurs the more potential a wine has in terms of aromas, flavors, sediment, and cloudiness. Fining and filtering can literally clear everything up if a wine is too opaque.
In my opinion, many of the special qualities in wine are often stripped by the general aggressive nature that most filtering treatments involve. The purist in me believes that gravity and Bentonite are the best tools for fine tuning the clarity of a wine. Gravity helps to clarify the wine as sediment falls to the bottom of the storage container.
Depending on the amount of time that a wine rests on its sediment, lees, and how carefully the wine is racked from its lees can determine the potential cloudiness. Because red wine is so densely colored, gravity and a few rackings usually suffice in clarifying the wine. Bentonite, when added to white wines can remove basic cloudiness. Bentonite also protects the wine from future protein build up after bottling.
Filtering can clarify a wine even further. Depending on the size of the filter’s pores, particles as small as one-half of a micron can be removed from the liquid. Filtering – in addition to the use of sulfur – adds a bit of insurance that the end product will not stray far from its current state. As for the clarity of the wine in your glass, the important thing is not that it is transparent or not. What’s important is how that particular characteristic effects the wine as an organoleptic experience.
In aged reds, even fined and filtered wines, it is possible that the anthocyanins (extracted from the skins of the grape) and tannins (extracted from the skins, seeds, and stalks of the grape) will eventually bind to form larger compounds that ‘fall out’ of solution.
These compounds appear in the form of darkly colored sediment. The resulting wine would likely have a brownish hue. This is not a problem. It is merely a signal to the wine drinker/taster that the wine is aged, ready to drink, and/or on the decline.
Being able to assess a wine prior to smelling or tasting the wine is one way blind tasters and competition judges focus in on the region, vineyard, producer, variety, and quality of a wine.
For winemakers, the ultimate decision to fine or filter a wine should be based on the potential of that wine. If the wine’s flavors and aromas are big and beautiful and the wine has no detectable problems, it should be manipulated as little as possible to ensure the wine’s longevity.
For those who enjoy wine as an accompaniment to meals, or as a social lubricant, the clarity of the wine is less important. My advice: if you find sediment in your wine, don’t discount it. Consider its presence, and why it might be there. Smell and taste the wine. If it is fine to drink – if there is nothing offensive about the wine – try to enjoy the wine. Decanting the wine from the bottle into a carafe prior to pouring the wine into your glass can also help separate the sediment.
Just don’t ingest the sediment. It is crystalline and coarse and crunchy, the remnants and detritus of the winemaking process. And although the sediment is a part of what makes the wine special, it is not meant to add to the enjoyment of the wine. It should be left behind, either in the shoulder of the bottle or in the bottom of your glass.