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What are lees in wine? – Ask Decanter

Confused when a tasting note or description refers to ‘lees’? And what sort of flavours do they produce? Our experts explain….

What are lees in wine? – Ask Decanter

The lees in wine are essentially the dead yeast cells, leftover from the fermentation process.

There are two kinds of lees; gross lees and fine lees.

Gross lees refers to the sediment that forms in the wine, and tend to naturally fall to the bottom of the wine vessel. They are normally removed from the wine soon after fermentation has ceased.

Fine lees are smaller particles that settle more slowly in the wine.  They can also be filtered out of the wine, but some winemakers choose to leave them in for differing lengths of time in an effort to enhance the complexity of the wine.

stirring the lees

A ‘baton’ used for stirring the lees in barrel in Burgundy, at Domaine Gachot-Monot. Credit: Per Karlsson, BKWine 2 / Alamy Stock Photo.

The flavour of lees

Leaving the fine lees with a white wine develops further flavours and adds body.

Almond, hay and yeasty aromas and flavours can all be the results of spending some time ‘sur lie’ (on the lees).

You can often find examples in still white wines from Muscadet and Burgundy.

Lees in sparkling wines

riddling racks in the Krug cellars

Riddling racks in the Krug cellars in Champagne. Credit: Krug.

Champagne, and sparkling wines made in similar ways, can spend significant time on the lees.

By law, a non-vintage Champagne must be aged for 15 months in bottle and spend at least 12 months on lees. A vintage Champagne must be aged on lees for three years minimum. Many houses age their best non-vintage and vintage wines for much longer than this.

With traditional method sparkling wines, like Champagne, yeast cells dies in the bottle once sugar has been consumed, ending the second fermentation.

This means that the wines come into close contact with fine lees left in the bottle and, over time, this creates autolytic flavours, like brioche, biscuit and bread.

Removing the lees

A bottle of traditional method sparkling wine being disgorged by hand.

The lees are removed in the process of disgorgement.

It is becoming more popular for Champagne houses to produce ‘late-disgorged’ wines, meaning they have spent longer on the lees, or to include their disgorgement dates. Some Champagne houses now publish the date of disgorgement on bottle labels or via QR codes, too.

Some winemakers remove the lees quickly from the wine, when they prefer a fruit-forward style of wine, with fewer secondary aromas.

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