Dear Wine Wizard,
Hi there! I’m a teacher of wine at the Olive Garden restaurant in Dallas, Texas. I was wondering if you could help me understand what "surely" means when referring to winemaking. Something I read said it means, "on the yeast." I still don’t understand. I have looked in several reference books, and have yet to even locate this term let alone find a definition.
Michael Ann Williams
Wine Wizard replies: I’m so glad you wrote with this question! How many of us have stood there baffled, not knowing what to do or where to turn, when faced with an unfamiliar wine term — usually written in another language! Well, here’s the answer to your question. What you’re describing as the word "surely" is really the French term "sur lie" (you knew it would be French, didn’t you). In French, "sur lie" (pronounced "sewr lee") means "on the lees." "Lees" is a general word for the gooey, gloppy, sludge-like deposit that collects on the bottom of a fermentation vessel — say, a barrel — after the yeast fermentation is done.
Let me give you a simple example of how this term applies to winemaking: A winemaker has just pressed a load of Chardonnay grapes and has siphoned the juice into a 35-gallon barrel. She then adds some yeast (to begin the process of turning the juice into wine), plugs the barrel with a fermentation lock and walks away. After about a week, the yeast will have eaten up the sugar in the grape juice and transformed it into ethyl alcohol. Once the bubbling action of the fermentation stops, we’re left with what we can now call "wine," plus a sediment of fine grape particulates and dead yeast cells that we call the "lees." If we don’t "rack" the wine (siphon it off the solids at the bottom) immediately after fermentation into a clean barrel and instead let the new wine just sit there "on the lees", then we are aging the wine "sur lies."
Aging a wine on the lees is traditionally used in Chardonnay production (though I’ve seen it in the making of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer, all white wines). Many winemakers feel it gives the wines more mouthfeel, body, and aromatic complexity. The dead yeast cells break down over time, releasing amino acids, proteins and other biological compounds into the wine. A former employer of mine would even stick a stainless steel rod into each barrel of Chardonnay as it aged "sur lies" and stir up this sediment, further enhancing the contact that the lees had with the wine in the barrel. He felt that this traditional French technique greatly enhanced the texture of his wines and imparted them with a richness not attainable by any other methods. If you work in the restaurant business you might appreciate the fact that "sur lies" aging, usually accompanied by barrel stirring, is a time-consuming process and can contribute to the quality — and the price — of the bottles of wine you might be serving.
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