Neither fish nor fowl

Fined, filtered or natural

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Wine barrels in South Australian winery

Wine barrels in South Australian winery [©Winepros/]


We are moving closer to selling bottled wine that has not been fined or filtered, perhaps encouraged by the movement for more natural foods. That is a generality, as some wines are already being sold without being ‘cleaned’ and historically, Grange comes to mind. (Originally, there was entrenched belief that Grange would only be bought by knowledgeable wine drinkers.)

‘Eight egg whites per barrique’ is a phrase instilled into the minds of young oenologists. It is really an historical statement, and translates to – add 8 egg whites to 225 litres of dry red (a barrique barrel holds about that amount) – a formula that has been used in Bordeaux for hundreds of years.

After separating the egg whites, they are beaten in a copper bowl, according to tradition, before slow addition to the wine where it instantly reacts with tannin-like material naturally present in the new wine to form minute clumps of mucilaginous material that then slowly sink to the bottom of the barrique to form lees. Some three weeks later, the clear wine is ‘racked’ off the lees into another barrel or vat.

The old phrase ‘neither fish nor fowl’ could become a catch-cry demand of vegans when ordering their wines. Fish in the form of ‘isinglass’ derived from the swim bladder of the sturgeon fish has also been used for centuries for fining wine as well as beer and especially Champagne. Its place has been for use with white wines and especially the more delicate types (like Champagne).

Egg white and isinglass finings work by chemical reaction, as does gelatine which is more commonly used for everyday wines.

Clay has also been used for fining wines for about a century, but it is a special type most commonly found in Wyoming, USA. It acts in a very different way which could be described as mechanical, while it is dominantly used to remove protein like materials that can cause wines to go cloudy after being bottled.

Whereas the mucilaginous matter formed when egg white or gelatine is used takes time to settle as lees in the barrique or tank, we used to spin the bentonite and the minute particles it gathered out of the wine with a centrifuge, importantly, a hermetic centrifuge which ensured negligible oxidation during the spinning, though never used in that violent way on very delicate white wines.

Winemakers mostly believe people want their wines to be clear when purchased. When first made, the condition of wine can be likened to pea soup depending on the degree of pressure applied during the extraction of the juice or wine from the grape skins, stems and stalks. Wines could be sold in bottle with the recommendation that it be stood upright for days so any suspended sediment could settle (again, as lees). Then the customer would ‘decant’ the wine in the time-honored way, pouring the clear liquid gently off the lees into a ‘decanter’.

But here’s the rub: there would always be loss of wine and this is the aspect that may not be surmountable, especially as the percentage would vary according to the wine, how long the bottle has been stood upright and the expertise of the operator.


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).


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April 27th, 2011
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