Fine wine is a product of two disciplines, growing grapes and turning their juice into a more sublime potable.
To maximize the quality of the wine, each task must be done with a degree of precision. And to many wine people, each requires an opposite action.
To farm grapes you need to know what to do to maximize quality. And to make great wine, you need to know what not to do.
Or as an Aussie colleague told me two decades ago, “To make a great wine, get great grapes and don’t trip on the mat.” He explained that with the best wines, the less you do to it the better.
What that means is that whatever procedure a winemaker chooses to employ on a wine should be only to improve it. So when a winemaker chooses to filter a wine, the task should be chosen because it makes the wine better.
But then there are some tasks that are done that do not improve the wine as much as make it look better, which means it can be sold faster. That way, fewer people will see something “wrong” with the wine, which could hurt its sales.
The classic case in point is when a wine displays tiny crystals, which some people say is ground glass. That’s just before they head back to the shop to return the wine.
This is particularly noticeable in white wines that are typically chilled. What the crystals are, simply, are tartrates that naturally occur in wines, and which (because the wine was chilled) fell out of solution.
Almost all wines contain tartaric acid. This acid is in solution and isn’t seen in most wine.
Many wineries are fearful that excessive chilling of a white or pink wine could cause some of the crystals to appear, making it look like there’s glass at the bottom of the bottle. So they take the precaution of chilling the wine at the winery in a large tank.
This is called “cold stabilization” and it removes some of the tartrate crystals. The crystals are found at the bottom of the tank and can be turned into cream of tartar, which is used in baking.
When little or no cold stabilization is done, the wine will “throw” more tartrates (that’s how winemaker say it), and this can be part of the sediment we find in older red wines.
These crystals and its related sediment are not harmful, just not very nice looking and they can be bitter.
Earlier this week I met with Fred Holloway, wine maker for Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif., to try his red wines from the 2006 vintage. Even though the wines were very young, just released in fact, most of them had some sediment in the bottom of the bottles.
“I don’t cold stabilize my reds,” said Holloway, a longtime winemaker with excellent credentials. “I don’t think it makes them smell and taste better, so I avoid it.”
I agreed. I’m not generally in favor of the procedure, but noted that some people might see sediment and assume something is wrong with the wine.
His reply was simple: Justin’s wines are among the best in the Paso Robles region, and have a track record of tasting great when young and aging nicely for a decade or more.
And most people who are willing to pay the $45 to $60 for most of the winery’s reds deserve to get a wine that was not pushed through a procedure the winemaker believes only detracts from it.
That doesn’t mean to say cold stabilization is a bad procedure. Done carefully, it can make a wine look pristine.
But I respect winemakers willing avoid a process aimed mainly at a wine’s appearance.
Wine of the Week: 2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc, Paso Robles ($15) -- A very stylish white wine with a fresh grapefruit and melon aroma, a trace of kiwi fruit in the mouth, and bracing acidity that works brilliantly with seafood. It is screwcapped for freshness.