Should white wine be cloudy? Most people would say no, but I say reconsider. At a lunch the other day, a wine representative said of his Chardonnay, “Don’t be alarmed that it’s cloudy.” I looked at the translucent, slightly hazy golden-hued wine in the glass and gushed, “I don’t know what it is, but I love cloudy wines. For some reason, I just expect them to be delicious.”
The wine in question was the 2006 Lioco Charles Heintz Chardonnay. The representative, Matt Licklider, is one of the partners in Lioco, a brand dedicated to unadulterated, noninterventionist Californian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Most Lioco wines are not cloudy, but the 2006 Heintz was an anomaly, a wine that didn’t settle clear.
Even a slight murkiness in wine seems to give most people the perception that it is flawed. And sometimes it is: Small particles from the grapes or from the yeasts can remain after bottling. The particles are less dense than the wine itself and thus remain suspended in it. Those particles can sometimes make the wine go bad, or they can make consumers think the wine has gone bad.
The remedy is filtration, which is the rule in most wineries, though there’s a vocal and passionate antifiltration faction. Here, the rallying cry was probably best sounded by Berkeley-based importer and writer Kermit Lynch in his book Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France. Referring to a filtered version of a wine he had previously revered, he wrote, “It tasted bland and innocuous. It smelled of cardboard because it had been filtered through cardboard … the poor wine expressed sterility and cardboard.”
Of course, filtration technology has improved since the 1970s when Lynch was forming these opinions, and filtered wines no longer express cardboard. But there’s no doubt that, in removing some of the suspended particles, winemakers usually remove a little bit of character too. They also reduce the risk that their wine might be unstable, and for this reason, practically all large-production wines will be filtered. It is typically the artisans who abstain. And, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why artisanal wine can be more captivating than more commercial wine.
It’s not Licklider’s goal to produce cloudy wine, but he refuses to filter. “Usually a wine will go clear with prolonged settling in the tank,” he told me. “All the particles just eventually sink to the bottom. But, in this case, they just weren’t going to fall out of suspension, so to be true to the wine, the vintage, and the vineyard we decided to bottle as is.” The Heintz vineyard, he explained, was brutally infected with the kind of rot called botrytis in 2006. Rather than ditching the fruit, though, the Lioco boys decided to make the wine. It isn’t classic Chardonnay; its cloudiness and rich, almost meadlike flavors give it the appearance and aromas of honey, though it is a dry, rich wine (the lunch I was attending was actually pairing this wine with various honeys from Marshall’s Farm, a Bay Area honey producer—it was a fantastic match).
There are other cloudy wines on the market, though not many. I think of the great white wines of Radikon and Gravner from the region of Friuli. Their whites, made with the extended skin contact normally used to make red wine, are often somewhat brackish, but they’re always complex and evocative of flowers, fruits, grass, and earth with that lovely dense texture so rarely found in white wines.
Just across the border from them in Slovenia is the great producer Movia, which makes a rare, wonderful wine, Lunar, which is remarkably made with zero intervention. Winemaker Ales Kristancic devised a way to put Ribolla Gialla grapes into a sealed cask and let the wine make itself. The result is a peach-colored wine with a mineral texture and amazing scents of beeswax and flowers.
Stateside, the culty, mailing-list-only Chardonnays of Peter Michael are expensive, but unfiltered and gorgeous. Another great cloudy white is Lazy Creek’s Anderson Valley Gewürztraminer. The spicy, dry, rose-litchi-scented wine appears to benefit from its cloudiness, which seems to give it a weight and a solidity to beautifully carry those powerful flavors.
Most of the time we may favor a clear day over a cloudy one. But when it comes to wine, I’ll take cloudy any time.