Welcome to the World of Winemaking! I’m having fun alphabetizing the home winemaking process – here are the links going backwards for your convenience, in case you missed any:
A for Aromas, Acidity and Appearance
B for Barrels, Bottles and Blackberry Wine
C for Color, Clarity, Carboys and Cherry Wine
D for Decanting and Decanters
E for Equipment
F for Fermentation
G for Glass and Grape
H for Harvest
I for Infusion
J for Jeroboam and Jug
K for Kabinett
Today’s letter is “L”, so we’ll talk about Leaf, Label and Lees.
Leaf: grape vine leaves are responsible for capturing sunlight energy, and turning it into sugar and into all of the other elements that form a grape (flavors, colors, tannins) so obviously the leaves are important.
The broad part of a leaf is a blade, and the small stalk-like portion that connects it to the shoot is the petiole. Photosynthesis occurs in the blade portion of the leaf. Tendrils are small green structures that coil around nearby objects, giving support to the growing shoot. They grow from a point opposite the leaf, but not every leaf is paired with a tendril.
Grape leaves are edible – there are tons of delicious Greek or Mediterranean recipes out there I’d love to try with grape leaves.
Label: This one’s obvious – they’re the stickers on a wine bottle, used to attract buyers and provide information to consumers. I don’t know about you, but when I’m buying wine, I often times will buy it because I like the label, like this one I got in Iowa:
They even cleverly added a mini set of handcuffs on the neck for fun:
I still have that bottle – I haven’t decided if I’ll crack it open and drink it or not, I like looking at it. For us home winemakers, we have creative license on our labels, too – I try to be clever, like the hard cider I made, this was the label I designed and created:
One thing I learned early on is it’s wise to invest in a good color laser printer – I started off with a color ink jet printer, and if any kind of moisture hits that label, all that hard work literally runs away.
And finally, Lees: after fermentation, yeasts die in the wine and sediment at the bottom of the container, forming the lees. To increase the body and aromatic complexity of a wine, lees can be agitated in order to put the yeasts back in contact with the wine, and liberate their compounds into the wine (like an infusion if you wish).
Lees stirring, known as bâtonnage in Burgundy, refers to the practice of stirring the dead yeast cells back into suspension during the maturation period, hence why it is often referred to as sur-lie aging, French for “on the lees”. It is most often practiced in white winemaking.
The stirring is accomplished using a special cane or stirring rod according to a stirring schedule determined by the winemaker based on desired style, for example, once daily starting at the end of both fermentations, and then progressively reduced to once a week for a maximum total duration of 12 months.
A word of caution though, only fine lees are beneficial; gross lees are rich in spoilage organism nutrients and contain a myriad of other heavy solids, such as pulp and grape skin fragments that may contain sulfur, from vineyard spraying, or sulfur dioxide (SO2) from sulfite additions, all of which can have a negative impact on wine quality.
Extended contact with gross lees can cause a (chemical) reduction of sulfur-containing compounds, which can lead to highly undesirable flavors such as a rotten-egg smell. To avoid such spoilage, rack wine off its voluminous gross lees early, i.e., right after the vigorous phase of alcoholic fermentation.
Here’s a good example – I had just racked my new batch of apple wine into the large carboy, and took a picture of it next to a smaller one that had been racked several times:
See how cloudy the one on the left is? Once that settled down, the gross lees (aka the thick layer of sediment) was obvious at the bottom, so I racked it into a different carboy, leaving the sediment behind.
Every time I racked it, I let it sit for at least a week (sometimes two) before racking again – and continued to do so until there was very little sediment (or lees) left before finishing and bottling. You’ll notice there’s a small layer of sediment on the smaller bottle on the right – those are considered ‘fine lees’, and if I wanted to, I could have stirred them back in and let it sit for a couple of weeks, or allowed that wine to age on those fine lees to add more body and flavor to that batch of wine.
I’m pretty sure I played it safe and racked it a few more times before bottling – but at some point I’ll definitely be doing some scientific experimenting with the fine lees!
Winemaking is so much fun – at least for me – and am tickled every time I give the wine I make as gifts to friends and family who love drinking it as much as I love making it. While we go through this alphabetical series on winemaking, if you have any burning questions, be sure to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll reply there – and maybe even highlight your specific question(s) in a future post!
Thanks for joining me in this fun adventure!