You sit down to dinner and pour out a glass of lightly chilled chardonnay that a wine merchant highly recommended. But before you take a sip, you notice the wine isn't completely clear.
There are little flecks of something floating around in there. It looks suspicious. What do you do?
A) Strain it through a coffee filter.
B) Report the matter to the health department.
C) Open another bottle of wine and take the defective bottle back to the jerk who sold it to you.
None of the above. Close your eyes and taste the wine. What you're tasting is probably not defective at all. In fact, it might just be the best chardonnay you've tasted in a long time.
Those tiny particles floating in the wine are no big deal. They're just some of the solid residue of the grapes that made the wine -- perfectly natural.
What's different with this wine is that the winemaker didn't filter every last particle out of the wine. Nor did he clarify it by adding a fining agent such as egg whites.
Negligence? Hardly. More and more winemakers are proudly throwing away their filter pads, saving money on eggs and telling consumers about it on their wine labels.
"This traditionally made wine has not been filtered or fined. A deposit may form in the bottle," reads the label on bottles of wine made by Maryland's Basignani Winery in Sparks.
"Non-filtre" reads the label of the 1989 Chante Cigale Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Newton Vineyards 1990 Napa Valley Chardonnay translates that as "not filtered."
Robert Mondavi, Caymus, Pahlmeyer, Rosenblum, Signorello -- these are just a few of the wineries that label at least some of their wines as unfiltered, in some cases unfined.
Proud of it
These notices, and others like them, are not government-mandated warnings such as "contains sulfites." They are proud boasts by winemakers who are determined that every last bit of flavor that nature put in the wine will go into the bottle. The boldest of the breed extend the practice to white wines, where the results of their hands-off policies can be particularly conspicuous.
There's nothing new about unfiltered wines. Man had wine for thousands of years before the invention of micropore filters. The demand that wines be squeaky clean and crystal-clear is a product of the modern era of "scientific" winemaking.
Unfortunately, filtration has become a reflex reaction in the modern wine industry. Some mass importers have insisted that their suppliers clean up their wines -- fearing, with some justification, that consumers will freak out at the sight of something other than liquid in the bottle.
Filtration is also a defensive reaction against the perils of the distribution system, which often exposes wine to inappropriately high temperatures in uncooled warehouses and the holds of ships. Unfiltered wine is more prone to spoilage under such conditions, though one can ask whether filtered wine simply suffers less conspicuous damage.
But there's a price to pay when you start polishing a wine. It might be more able to withstand the shock of mishandling in transit, but there is a cost in terms of flavor and aroma. That shmutz in a bottle of unfiltered wine is part of its flavor profile.
It's little wonder that the list of wineries that avoid filtration reads like a roster of the world's greatest producers: Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace; Guigal and Chateau Beaucastel from the Rhone; the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti from Burgundy; and Kalin Cellars in California.
The no-filter philosophy
Hans-Gunter Schwarz, the winemaking genius at Germany's acclaimed Muller-Catoir winery, articulates the philosophy behind this decision as well as anybody.
"You watch over, you guide, you preserve, but you never alter," he told importer Terry Theise. "We place the highest emphasis on the inner material of the wine; this means our wines experience no clarification or fining. We have never, in all my years here, had a wine that needed that."
Most of these producers avoid fining and filtration as a matter of course. They do not call attention to it on the label, because for them it is as natural as breathing.
It isn't something that comes naturally to American consumers. Telling them up-front that a wine is unfiltered is a good idea. Not only does it warn the buyer that the wine might throw a deposit, it tells them something about the philosophy behind the wine.
It's a philosophy that many oenologists and wine commentators dismiss as romantic. Many acclaimed winemakers wouldn't dream of putting an unfiltered wine onto the market. To filter or not to filter has become the No. 1 subject of controversy in the world of fine wines today.
There are persuasive voices on both sides. In the anti-filtration camp the most powerful voices are Robert M. Parker Jr., publisher of the Wine Advocate, and importer Kermit Lynch, who skewer the practice with prosecutorial zeal. In the pro-filtration group you find wine writers Hugh Johnson and James Halliday, whose book, "The Vintner's Art" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), ably presents the case for the defense.
The pro faction makes some valid points. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Halliday are correct in noting that many of the wines whose defects are ascribed to filtration itself have in fact been filtered incompetently. There is certainly a difference between a judicious polishing filtration and a taste-stripping passage through sterile micropore filter pads.
In fact, filtration is probably appropriate for most of the world's wines. Mass-produced wines do get bounced around a lot, and consumers of Sutter Home White Zinfandel or Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay don't want to see sediment in the bottle.
Even for many premium wines, judicious filtration has done minimal damage to the wine. Yes, filtration does immense harm to wines made from the delicate pinot noir grape, but cabernet sauvignon-based wines are seldom stripped of their flavors.
But if filtration critics sometimes overstate the damage, champions of the practice wildly overstate the risks of unfiltered wines. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Halliday warn that unfiltered "artisan Burgundies and Rhones are bacterial time bombs." My tastings suggest that they've been scared by the bogeyman. Some of these unfiltered gems have explosive flavors, but few of them are bombs.
Benefit vs. loss
The key question is whether the benefits of filtration outweigh the costs. The problem is not that too many winemakers answer yes. It's that they never ask questions at all, but filter automatically because that's what they learned in their oenology classes.
It's time that more New World winemakers learn what tradition-minded European vintners have known for centuries: that if a wine is made from good grapes, picked when fully ripe and rot-free from a vineyard that didn't carry an excessive crop, it will be reasonably sturdy stuff. Age it properly, let the fermentation yeast residue settle, and it will look and taste clean.
Sure, there is an extra measure of risk in shipping unfiltered wine. But winemakers who focus exclusively on risk avoidance seldom deliver maximum flavor.
It's a little like the difference between fresh fish and frozen. In a corner diner, we don't necessarily expect fish to be fresh, but in a four-star restaurant we do. These days we have far too many wineries charging $20-$30 a bottle for the vinous equivalent of frozen fish.
Let's hope this trend of wineries dumping their filter pads is the beginning of the thaw.
Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red No. 12 ($7).
This non-vintage blend made from the lightly regarded gamay, petite sirah and carignane grapes has more complexity and appeal than most $15 California cabernet sauvignons. Its
smooth, spicy berry flavors make it attractive right now, but its body and structure signal that it has two to four years of development ahead.