Sur Lie Aging Explained

Sur Lie Aging Explained

What is Sur Lie Aging? Sur lie aging is the process of allowing a finished wine to continue to sit on the lees in order to extract flavors. Recently we explored the fact that there are two different types of lees. There are the grape lees (coming from the fruit) and the yeast lees (you guessed it, from the yeast). Each of these can be used in sur lie aging and each will produce different results. Aging wine on the grape lees is something to be undertaken with extreme care as this lees can easily spoil a wine if not done properly. When done correctly though it can lead to a wonderfully complex wine. Yeast lees on the other hand is the more common lees to perform sur lie aging with. As the yeast decomposes it can impart nut, bread, and yeast flavors to a wine. Different yeast cells can contribute different flavors too so you’re not guaranteed to get the same thing from all yeast strains. The remainder of this article pertains to aging on the fine lees only. How does Sur Lie Aging Work? During sur lie the lees cells break down (i.e. decompose) into simpler compounds. This releases sugars and proteins that interact with the wine chemistry. There are also flavor and aroma compounds that get released. As the proteins are released they bind with tannins in the wine. This is good for a white wine as you don’t want tannins in a white. However, for a red wine this can be problematic as it is the tannins that go a long way in determining the aging potential of the wine. For this reason red wines are usually not aged this way while white wines often are. The deciding factor depends upon the intentions of the wine maker. If the lees are left undisturbed in the bottom of your aging vessel for too long they can start to form some nasty sulfur flavors and aromas. To keep this from happening you need to stir the lees regularly, a process called battonage. Stirring the lees keeps hydrogen sulfide from forming as quickly and ensures that your wine gets maximum exposure to the cells and the compounds they’re decomposing into. Things to Watch Out For As you proceed through the sur lie process be sure to pay special attention to the flavor profiles of your wine. You can over do this and end up with off flavors. If at any point you experience sulfur like flavors like rotten eggs, rack off the lees immediately. The sooner you take action the better your chances are of being able to deal with these off flavors. Taken too far and your wine won’t be drinkable. When to Age on The Lees Preparation for sur lie aging begins as fermentation is wrapping up. The lees should be stirred up every two to three days for the last bits of fermentation. Once fermentation has ended continue to stir the lees once or twice each week for a period of six weeks or so. After that stir it up monthly. Some wine makers prefer...

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Racking off the Lees

Racking off the Lees

Racking is the next step, after the initial more vigorous fermentation. What is racking? Simply put racking is siphoning your wine off of the dead yeast, known as lees, into a clean container. There are two reasons to rack your wine. First it helps clarify your wine but it can also prevent off flavors from the decomposing yeast. Over time yeast and other sediment will precipitate out of your wine and settle to the bottom. The cloudiness will dissipate with each successive racking until you’ve got a nearly clear wine. Nearly because you do sometimes need to fine the last bit of cloudiness out. Getting your wine off of the yeast as it decomposes can prevent off flavors. While some wines are aged on the yeast you really need to know what you’re doing to do this successfully. When to Rack Generally you want rack after the vigorous fermentation has completed. Initially fermentation produces great quantities of gas and is too much for many aging containers such as carboys or barrels. Once this phase is over and much of the yeast has died you would then rack the wine off of the lees and let fermentation continue and its more subdued rate until complete. As sediment collects at the bottom you’ll rack again. Some wine makers rack only once and others will rack four or five times depending upon the flavor profile they’re going for and how clear they want the wine. If, for instance, you’re going to be clearing your wine through fining you don’t have to rack the wine so many times to get it clear. When Not to Rack There are some wines that are aged on the lees and bottled without racking, a process known as sur lie aging. This french term simply means “on the lees”. This process is used on namely Chardonnay, Champagne, and Muscadet. The lees can add nutty, toast, or even hazelnut flavors. Chemically sur lie alters the oak flavor molecules and increases their integration with other molecules. This can tame oak flavors and make them taste like a part of the wine as opposed to an additive. As mentioned earlier you need to know what you’re doing to pull this off. For your first time you might consider splitting your wine and only performing sur lie on a portion of it. Taste your sur lie batch often and err on the side of caution when deciding to bottle. Bottle most of it when you are picking up the additional flavors you are looking for. With a small amount of wine let it sit on the lees and continue tasting to see how long it takes to pick up off flavors. This will give you a good guide line for sur lie wine making in the future. The Light Lees Protocol This “protocol” involves adding fresh yeast back into a completely fermented wine for a period of two to eight weeks. Doing this aids in the releases mannoproteins and poysaccharides into the wine, both of which alter the flavor and mouth feel of the finished product. Light lees is also added...

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