The Good and The Bad on Sediment

As a winemaker I was constantly battling the question of whether to filter and/or stabilize my wines or leave them “au naturelle”. After many years of trial and error I am convinced that some wines can definitely show better in the bottle when they are not stabilized and/or filtered. Pinot Noir is notorious for “taking a dive” after filtration, and the same can be said for cool climate Shiraz.

In fact, there has been a recent flurry of research to suggest that colour density and stability is improved by not cold stabilizing red wine. Now, what have they found to be the most important analytical measure of red wine quality? You guessed it… colour density.

However, leaving a wine to its’ own devices isn’t always the smart thing to do. This is particularly the case when dealing with high pH (low acid) wines, sweet wines, wines with a history of Brettanomyces (spoilage yeast) or wines made with less than perfect fruit. I always felt that you have two choices when it comes to making wine. “Do you want it to look pretty?” or “Do you want it to taste good?” Sometimes you can’t have both, so I tended to choose the latter.

In a perfect world what does it matter if your bottle of red has some crunchy bits on the bottom? In this day and age, people are so obsessed with perfect produce, and air brushed perfection that much of the interesting stuff is getting left behind. Sometimes I hear comments like:

“I wouldn’t put up with sediment in my glass of coke so why is it okay in my glass of expensive wine?”

Well, good wine is not coke. It doesn’t come from your nearest bottling factory (hopefully) and it isn’t designed to be chugged and forgotten about. Wine should embody a place, its’ traditions and express a unique identity. It is meant to taste different, look different and smell different. If it doesn’t, then the winemaker is doing it wrong.
However, there is such a thing as good sediment and bad sediment.

Good sediment- is the natural precipitate found in wines when it ages. In red wines it is usually made up of tannin/phenolics/proteins linked with Potassium Bitartrate crystals. Often the sediment “complex” will form a crust on the inside of the bottle or a layer on the bottom. In white wines the crystals sometimes form at low temperature if the wine hasn’t been “cold stabilized”. These crystals are known as “wine diamonds” to the Germans, and are tasteless and harmless.

Bad sediment – this can often be microbial in origin. It may consist of bacteria, spoilage yeasts or other fungal contaminants. These particles will often turn the wine brown, cloudy, fizzy, or leave floating debris. The most common result is unpleasant tasting wine.

So what is the best way to deal with a wine with sediment? Easy…decant the wine. A simple glass decanter is great for every wine you drink. If you place a bottle upright an hour before drinking it then decant with a flashlight or candle. Even young white wines (especially screwcapped wines) will benefit from the aeration decanting brings. Generally, the younger a wine the earlier decanting should begin. I have been known to decant young Australian Shiraz the day before drinking it. Older “cellared” wines should only need an hour or less because significant oxidation has already occurred during the maturation process.

Don’t be scared of a little bit of sediment in your vino. It is these little gems that make life interesting.