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October 28, 2020
Have you ever had someone talking at you about their vast wine knowledge at a dinner party? Spouting all sorts of trendy sounding terminology, maniacally swirling and looking distressed searching for that specific secondary aroma. Throughout our upcoming series of blogs we will be exploring some of the more technical aspects of wine making and tasting. Easy to digest and packed full of useful information, you'll have the perfect rebuttals to 'Mr Swirly'.
In basic terms, lees are the dregs or sediment that settle in the bottom of a wine making vessel. They are made up of dead yeast cells, the cell membranes of pulp, stem and skin fragments, insoluble salts and macro-molecules. Basically all of the things that are deposited during the making and ageing of wine.
Lees contact is becoming increasingly popular in modern wine making, although not a new technique; the Ancient Romans were known to use it. Lees contact is where the newly fermented wine is deliberately left in contact with the lees. Lees contact can take place in various points of the wine making process, from the large tanks used for fermentation, all the way to the bottle. The most common container for this to take place in is in a small oak barrel. In some of our Greek wines this can take place in Clay Amphora.
Wines with deliberate lees contact are often described as 'sur lie'.
Yes! There are fine lees and gross lees.
Gross lees are the larger sediments in the wine, you may see these in some natural wines where they will fall to the bottom of a bottle when left undisturbed. Although they are usually filtered out.
Fine lees are the smaller, finer particles that settle at a slower rate. These are more commonly left in the wine than gross lees, although many producers still filter them out at some point of their process.
In the most basic terms, it adds complexity, structure and mouth feel to a wine.
Primarily performed on white wines, as reds gain a less obvious benefit from the process due to their already robust flavours. Leaving red wines ageing on lees can reduce astringency so there are still some manufacturers that will do this.
Fine wines left on lees require less drastic processing than other wines that were separated early from their lees.
In the production a process called malolactic conversion occurs when lees are left in the wine. This is where lactic acid bacteria will feed on the micro nutrients in the lees. This is the process that softens the taste of the wine, reduces acidity and increases the stability of the wine. This can be desirable for wines with excessive acidity. Sharp fruity notes will give way to more 'bready' secondary aromas in this process.
Time scale varies based on desired results. Any time between a matter of days all the way to several years in the case of some sparkling wines! In most cases lees contact is prolonged for less than a year after fermentation.
To speed up this process and increase the influence of the lees on the wine some wineries will perform 'lees stirring' or bâtonnage. As the name suggests, this is giving the wine and lees a good stir with a stick!
Keep an eye on our socials and website for more deep dives into the world of wine!
The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson, 4th Edition
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May 11, 2021