I was giving a talk the other day and began by demonstrating a standard approach to wine tasting. I started with a violent swirl of the wine and immediately stuck my nose in it only to look up and notice that the rest of the room began by peering into their glass…
They were looking at their wine; looking for legs, color and clarity.
I, apparently I didn’t care about what it looked like. For I have spent a decade ignoring legs and color. That is until my recent trip to Mexico, where I got a lovely tan and was forced to wear shorts. Wild abandon of concern for what one looks like, (or what one’s wine looks like, for that matter) is a mistake…not a superficial genuflection to vanity…Aha! Clarity!
Of course, there are reasons we look at wine color and clarity in our glasses.
Clarity, specifically is a prized quality in wine captured by the sense with the least aplomb in the wine world; the eyes. A wine with good clarity offers color without opacity, and shimmers in jewel tones. The wine is pretty. Winemakers achieve clarity through various means, either laid back and patient or forced. I prefer gravity and time to provide clarity, but I use bentonite fining to bind proteins, which prevents hazes in the bottle. Filtering offers a polish for wines removing suspended particles that might give an opacity to wines. Fining and filtering are not the only means of achieving clarity. Some winemakers use chemicals, including heavy metals, and enzymes to get the job done.
Clarity is not just about being pretty, however. Determining the clarity of a wine may reveal if it has been properly store, the presence of microbes, or if it has undergone heat and cold stability. If a wine is clear consumers can almost bet that it is clean, with only a few caveats.
We can easily judge clarity with our eyes, although most wine makers use a turbidimeter or nephelometer. I don’t have one of these in my lab, but I want one!
So if clarity is such a valuable indicator of a wine’s quality why am I not so concerned about it?
I am actually. What I don’t care for is the heavy handed process of forced clarity. I enjoy wines that clear themselves. I don’t clarify my whites before fermentation; I find it strips the juice of nutrients and removes so many of the phenolics that contributes to aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. I prefer to make reds with low tannin, so fining reds has never been necessary, except for clarity. And this happens over time.
Research suggests that many of the wonderful aromas in wines that we love are the result of lees contact in barrel or tank. Sur lees– the practice of leaving wines on the yeast, bacteria and larger colloidals in wines over a long period of time– enhances aromas. Over time these heavier particles precipitate out and turn into a soft cake in the bottom of a vessel. We can stir these up, a practice called batonage, to increase the wine’s aroma and viscosity. Eventually we rack the clarified wine off of the lees for finishing. I would argue that it is best to leave a wine on the lees as long as the wine program can allow.
Unfortunately, wine does not always comply with a bottling program, or a wine release date. Waiting for a clean wine to clear itself takes patience and time. When you have a very small winery that often sells out of a small run quickly, sometimes you can’t wait for the next vintage to find its own clarity!
Oddly enough, I rely on gravity to clear my whites more than my reds; I filter reds for Brettanomyces—a villain if ever there was one!-so my reds will be polished and clear as a byproduct of my obsession with Brett free wines. I almost always prefer my whites before filtering. I like the mouth feel, the natural balance and cohesiveness of the wine. It feels less worked, less forced.
All said, a cloudy wine can indicate all kinds of problems, or nothing but the wine maker’s style. A gorgeously polished wine may taste stripped and over worked in the palate, while something a little more rustic may be the best wine you’ve ever had! Certainly, look at your wine, but don’t give up on it until you put it to your nose. Wine makers make wine with their noses, not their eyes. And if there is sediment in your bottle? Certainly don’t shake it up, but don’t be discouraged either. Unfiltered wines often have sediment in the bottom. So do filtered and aged red wines. Sediments happens…