WHAT’S ALL THAT JUNK IN MY WINE?Ryan Poulos
You see it all the time – whether it’s still in the bottle or after you pour a glass, what looks like dirt or something solid that has gotten into the wine. This can’t be so! This is an expensive bottle of wine! Is it ruined? How did all those gross bits of particles get in there and what are they?
The first and most important thing to know is that wine sediment – as it’s called – is in no way dangerous to your health and is perfectly safe to drink. The absolute worst side effect you might get from wine sediment are teeth that stain more than usual. Wine sediment is most commonly found in unfiltered wines. You might wonder why a winemaker wouldn’t bother filtering their wine – it’s mainly because unfiltered wines traditionally have better color and a richer texture. Unfiltered wines have gained significantly in popularity over the last few years as winemakers attempt to produce more natural wines.
But back to the particles you see floating around – several things can create sediment you’re seeing ranging from lees and proteins to wine crystals and grape skins. Here’s a closer look at each of these.
Scientifically, lees are dead yeast particles that sink to the bottom of a tank or barrel during the winemaking process. In addition to dead yeast cells, lees can contain proteins, stems and other solid matter that has settled. You may notice on French wine labels or sparkling wine – specifically on French Muscadet – the phrase “Sur Lees.” If you see that, it means the winemaker went in during the winemaking process and stirred the lees once per day. The process of stirring the lees each day provides for a richer and creamier flavor in the wine and can be a good substitute for traditional oak aging.
Wine crystals – or in the wine world known as Cream of Tartar – are another kind of sediment regularly found in wine. Scientifically known as potassium bitartrate, wine crystals are a byproduct of tartaric acid from the traditional winemaking process. They are most commonly found in unfiltered white wines like Chardonnay, Viognier and White Bordeaux. Wines with these crystals are often actually considered to generally be better wines.
Proteins in an unfiltered wine can also leave them looking cloudier than normal. Believe it or not, proteins are frequently removed using egg whites, aka casein, during the wine stabilization process. While they may be left in smaller batch wines, proteins are usually removed from larger commercial wines as they can have a negative impact on the wine relatively quickly.
Grapes themselves can sometimes leave behind some of their particulate matter. This will typically come across as a blackish blob at the bottom of your wine glass. While it’s uncommon to find grape sediment in light red wines, it’s much more commonly found in unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
There are wine filters and tools available to help you remove sediment from wine, but unless you’re hosting special tasting with some really nice wines, they probably aren’t worth it. Drink up, and remember, what doesn’t hurt you only makes you stronger (at drinking wine)!