Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Wine Term: Lees

White Lee jeansNo, these aren’t what you might wear for pants, and you will be hard-pressed (pardon the pun) to find them in white (though blue is not unusual).

The lees (pronounced like the jeans) are the dead yeast cells, grape seeds, pulp, stems, skins, and tartrates that separate from the juice during wine making and aging.

When there’s “stuff” at the bottom of the bottle, it’s referred to as sediment or dregs; when you’re discussing the technical aspects of the winemaking, it’s called “the lees” — as in, “this wine was left on the lees for two months, blah blah blah”.

Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine. By leaving the juice to remain on top of the lees (and/or occasional stirring) after fermentation, all the dead yeast and skins, etc., can provide additional flavors, body, and richness. After a predetermined amount of time “on the lees”, the juice will then be “racked” — a.k.a., moved to a new container (barrel, tank, etc.) — with the lees left behind.

An example of a wine left on the lees is Muscadet “Sur Lie”; many white wines in the higher price ranges are also left on the lees — it’s a common tactic for ageable whites and Champagnes.

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Comments

  1. You wrote “Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine. ” Sorry but it is the red wines “that are usually left on the lees ” to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine.

    white wines are very rarely left on the lees. If white wines are left on the lees they can end up with a lot of tannin which would make the white wine less pleasant .

    The extracted tannin that comes from the lees is what makes the red wines last longer and in fact less drinkable when they are very young; except for some styles like a Beaujolais. White Zins are an example of a lightly pressed red grape from which the juice is is quickly removed from contact with the red grapes resulting in little or no tannin in that wine.

    Most white wines are separated from the lees as soon as possible. Red wines are made by allowing them to stay on the lees to extract as much of the color, (especially red grapes) and flavor as possible.

    • Al thanks for the comments. Methinks I was not clear in my statement. When I stated “Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine.” what I meant was that some wines are left on the FINE lees for a LONG TIME AFTER fermentation — and, generally speaking, red wines gain less benefit from such practice, therefore, it is a practice that is more usually applied to white wines in situations where the winemaker wants more complexity (but, it is not necessarily a common winemaking practice for white wines in general, if that makes any sense).

      However you are absolutely correct in that “red wines are made by allowing them to stay on the lees to extract as much color and flavor as possible” — before and during fermentation. In other words, we’re both right, it just depends on the timing.

      • But you WEREN’T right, you weren’t talking about FINE lees, you’re just trying to justify the fact that you didn’t know what you were
        talking about.

        • Excuse me? Please point out exactly what was incorrect in the original post, in particular, the part in which I didn’t know what I was talking about. Fine lees and lees are still lees, and neither have anything to do with denim jeans.

          Any chance you’re a philosophy professor? Because I feel like I’m being graded subjectively on something that is inherently objective.

    • “The extracted tannin that comes from the lees is what makes the red wines last longer and in fact less drinkable when they are very young; except for some styles like a Beaujolais. White Zins are an example of a lightly pressed red grape from which the juice is is quickly removed from contact with the red grapes resulting in little or no tannin in that wine.

      Most white wines are separated from the lees as soon as possible. Red wines are made by allowing them to stay on the lees to extract as much of the color, (especially red grapes) and flavor as possible.”

      ohhhh so THAT’S why Beaujolais is so thin! Not the varietal? So in Bordeaux they sit their wine on lees for AGES and in Beaujolais not at all by your logic?

      hahahahaha Al, you must think Lees are the grape skins! You moron! And did you just add that little irrelevant bit about white wine made from red zinfandel grapes to try and seem cultivated on the matter? Well jees, we’re all really impressed.

      Please, If I may…

      ALL Lees are FINE lees. In winemaking you do NOT want any of the wine, white or red, coming into contact with the GROSS lees.

      The main point of lees aging is for sparkling wine to gain more yeast autolysis, ok. That means eventually lots of biscuit, bread, nutty, brioche flavours, ie perfect in red right?? Yes, lighter styles of white don’t go sur-lie but a lot of others do, including ALL CHAMPAGNE AND METHODE, (that’s A LOT of wine) and some great chardonnay and muscadet. Increasingly, apparently, SOME red wine is being left on lees for a few months or so (I don’t know why, or who) but it is basically only for white or obviously RED grapes being made into a blanc de noir.

      BTW AL, here’s something to kick-start your little wine enlightenment; Red wine begins fermentation with the grape SKINS ON, whereas white wine doesn’t. LOL BYE

      • Guillaume, thank you for your feedback. I appreciate your support, but please, in the future, refrain from calling people names (i.e., “moron”), as it’s impolite and I’d like to keep this as friendly, open, and non-judgmental as possible — even if someone else starts out by being condescending.

        Again, thanks for your more thorough description of lees. However, I think it confuses people — and is incorrect — to state “ALL Lees are FINE lees. In winemaking you do NOT want any of the wine, white or red, coming into contact with the GROSS lees.”

        The gross lees are ALL of the materials — dead yeast cells, sediment, etc., that falls down to the bottom of the container after fermentation. After the wine is racked, and as a result of racking, the gross lees are taken out and fine lees are left in the wine. Usually, if a winemaker chooses to let the wine rest on the lees, he is referring to the fine lees. However, in some cases, the winemaker may choose to use the gross lees for various reasons (stabilizing, structure, coloring, etc.). So to suggest that “In winemaking you do NOT want any of the wine, white or red, coming into contact with the GROSS lees” is more of a personal winemaking preference and/or dependent on what one wants the final wine to be.

        This short post on lees was supposed to provide a very general, introductory description, aimed at casual wine consumers. However, I’m happy that it has incited such passionate responses from people who have advanced wine knowledge as well.

  2. Christine Talley says:

    I’m a new vintner, only making wines and mead for a year and a half. I’d like to know if there’s any harm in drinking the “gross lees”- the really sludgy stuff from the first rack? I hate wasting stuff. I would never serve it anyone but I’ve drank it sometimes and it doesn’t taste too bad- ugly as sin, definitely not as good as the finished product but if you close your eyes, not bad. I make such small batches, a gallon at a time, that the gross lees can be a fair amount to toss. Any harm from the dead yeasty beasties and by-products? Thank you for your help. PS- I love the way you handled rudeness. You showed true class.

  3. ohn Gallivan says:

    I’m a home wine and mead maker. In my attempt to refine my processes as pertains to wine making I read numerous websites. Some of the websites are from various Universities. They have information based on studies done by acedemics as well as vintners. I don’t recall which site I was reading, but the author was saying that leaving the Triaminette grape wine (gerwursterminer sp?) on the lees during fermentation contributes to that particular grape developing a flavor more charteristic of that particular wine. I wondered for what length of time this should be done. I too would think it more adult and polite to not use terms like “moron” to describe fellow participants in a discussion. Can’t we just play nice? I have tasted the lees from a few wines and none of mine have ever bothered me but they have never tasted like anything I would drink twice. I do make a second wine from gross lees that has been quite nice.

    • John Gallivan says:

      I realize I misspoke in my earlier post. I don’t make my second wine from the gross lees. I make it from the must from a first fermentation which has gross lees included as it depends on the left over viable yeast cells to restart a fermentation. My apologies.

  4. Question: If you’re interested in “biscuit, bread, nutty, brioche flavours” as said above, why not simply add crushed biscuits, crumbed bread, crushed/shaved nuts or crumbled brioche instead?

    Is it possible to add ingredients like that & have the flavour take up?

  5. I had a bottle of Gavi La Scolca 2010 at my favorite Italian restaurant and then later bought a bottle locally. Very dry white wine – delicious – and on the back it states “Dry white wine refined by extended lees aging in steel tanks …” This is the reason I looked up this website. Thanks for all the information.

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  1. [...] Wine upon the lees:  wine may be left upon the “lees” to development the taste. http://www.wineweekly.com/wine-basics/wine-terms/wine-term-lees/ [...]

  2. […] Prisoner Wine Company and also does Quintessa, Faust and others. This Sauvignon Blanc was aged “on lees” in French oak barrels for 5 months, 25% new oak, the rest used barrels. The alcohol content is […]

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