If you’ve ever found the aroma of freshly baked croissants in your glass of Champagne, then you’ve found the mysterious Sur Lie (Suhr Lee, for my fellow Americans). While this winemaking marvel happens in a great number of wines, it’s most pronounced in a classic glass of bubbles from France’s famed region. So, if you’re hunting for sur lie, start by celebrating.
Literally “on lees” in French, the term sur lie refers to a specific aging technique: lees contact. Lees, an old English word for the dead yeast cells and other cellular left overs of the fermentation process, are a silty deposit at the bottom of barrels and tanks once wine is fermented. And while most wines are racked, or separated, from their lees early in the process to keep their flavors crystal bright, some wines rest and age on the lees for a bit. Why? Because the rich flavors and complexity of cellular the self-destruction called ‘autolysis’ (Auto-Lie-Sis or Aw-Tawl-Asis, depending on your wine geek) taste and smell of bread.
The bottled-chemistry in your glass give each sip its unique flavor and character. But how? When making wine, any wine, grapes are listed as the primary component. But it is yeast and their remarkable hunger that truly transform grape juice to wine. The yeast, living in air or added from a culture, feaston the sugary grape juice and produce the elixir we know as wine. Once they’re finished, the single celled yeast corpses simply exist along with the cellular remnants of the grape pulp, stem, and skins. It is the decomposition of these cellular remains, like party favors left behind, that gives sur lie its power. They, like yeast in bread or beer, slowly decompose to leave behind polysaccharides, peptides, and reducing enzymes that, to you and me, taste like heavenly bread and pastry. Thus, that ponderous “bready” flavor in sur lie wines that happens when the lees steep in the wine like a bakery flavored tea bag.
Theory Test Drive
From the Ancient Romans to modern Burgundians, complexity from sur lie aging adds body, finesse, and some remarkable flavors. Sparkling, white, and red wine each take something a little different away from their quality time with their lees.
Champagne’s storied sparklers, with their heady effervescence and delightful brioche whispers, are a bastion of the effects of sur lie aging. It softens the high acid of the cool climate bubbles, enriches the mouthfeel, and gives this region its signature flavor profile.
White Burgundian wonders are another fabulous example of the beauty of sur lie treatment. Here the lees are stirred, a practice called bâtonnage, to give their presence more influence in the flavor of the finished wine. Another cool climate, and thus high acid, wine than could lean towards astringency gains hazelnut, clove, and toast. The results speak for themselves. These are some of the most sought after and highly regarded Chardonnays on the planet. Montrachet anyone?
Off the well-worn path of white wines, you’ll find fabulous examples of white wines aged sur lie from Muscadet. Muscadet rests in the Loire Valley of northern France. Here, sur lie was a simple fact of life. The cool climate allowed winemakers to store their wines over the winter on their lees. The resulting wine has great flavor and, if you’re lucky, just a hint of bubbles adding to already lifted palate. Sublime with seafood (oysters) and creamy pasta dishes, Muscadet is a treat if you can find it. Let the phrase “mis en bouteille sur lie” be your guide. It means “made in this bottle on lees.” Yum.
Red wines enriched and emboldened by time on lees are bold and spectacular. Ripasso, literally “repassed” in Italian, made its way to the global stage in the 20th century. The leftover pomace of grape skins from Amarone (more on that another time) added to dry red wine made in Valpolicella creates a second wine. The dry red wine ages on these lees for months soaking up all the flavors and finesse it can. The wine is richer than your average Italian red, yet not as hefty as the original. The lees add complex flavors of toasted almonds, fresh bread, and summer spices to this luxurious red. So, if you’re a fan of robust reds, track down a Ripasso and enjoy yourself.
Wine-d out? Take yourself out for a brew. Beer is also aged on the lees and is called “trub” in those bottles. Check for beers from Quebec, Canada and some Belgium styled bottles if you’re looking for bottled gold outside of the wine shop.