Wine Sediment 101: Why you Shouldn't Worry
Anish Patel @ 2022-11-27 19:50:17 -0800
Sediment in wine? Is that supposed to be there? If you’ve ever finished a glass of wine only to find a thin layer of what looks like dirt in the bottom of your glass, you’ve come into contact with wine sediment, also known as wine crystals.
The good news is that sediment in your wine is not only safe, it’s totally normal. And though a little shocking if you’re not prepared for it, you’ll find that seasoned wine enthusiasts welcome wine sediment as a sign of high-quality wine. And most winemakers would like you to consider it a natural byproduct of low-intervention winemaking. Let’s take a look at why.
In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about the crunchy little crystals at the bottom of your prized bottle of vino: what they are, how they got there, and how you can avoid getting a mouthful. We’ll also go over a few other types of sediment that you’re likely to encounter. As you’ll see, it’s all about your mindset. Once you understand wine sediment, you just might start seeking it out.
Do yourself a favor and pour a glass of wine; let’s go.
What is wine sediment?
Wine sediment is made up of a few different things, depending on what kind of wine you’ve got. Wine crystals, also known as wine diamonds, are tartrate crystals that form during fermentation. This kind of sediment is more commonly found in higher-end wines and wines that have spent a very long time in the bottle, waiting to be enjoyed.
Tartrate crystals are crystalline structures that form when tartaric acid and potassium bond when exposed to cold temperatures. It’s a little bit of chemistry that happens in your wine as it ferments. However, many commercial wineries remove these crystals before bottling, and the reason they do it is pretty silly: many people don’t like the sight of them.
The way to prevent tartaric crystals from forming in the bottle is through a process called cold stabilization. Because the crystals are going to form when exposed to cold temperatures, winemakers will “chill” the wine, then filter out the crystals before bottling it. If they choose not to do this, then crystals will form in the bottle whenever the wine is exposed to cool temperatures, either in transit or in your refrigerator.
So, if you find crystals in your wine, it means that the winemaker opted for a low-intervention approach.
Lees are a more common wine sediment.
Another kind of sediment that you’ll find in wine can be found in unfiltered wines, often in the natural wine section. These wines are easy to spot because they’re cloudy or hazy, whereas other wines appear translucent.
The sediment in these wines is called lees, dead yeast that the winemaker has decided to leave in for a good reason. To understand why we might want a wine with lees, we need to understand the basics of how fermentation works.
Grape juice undergoes fermentation when the grapes are crushed in a vat, and the sugar is exposed to yeast. The yeast eats the sugar, converting it to alcohol and making wine. Eventually, the yeast dies, having done its job, and settles to the bottom of the fermentation vat. Sometimes, it is filtered out.
The yeast, once dead, is referred to as “lees” and many winemakers will choose to “age the wine on its lees” for any amount of time in order to add a more rounded body to the wine, or to add notes of bread, biscuit, or ritz cracker. When the lees are left in natural wine bottles, they often form a ring around the bottom of the bottle, or a line along the side, depending on the position in which the bottle is stored.
Lees are totally safe and are a much more common type of sediment to encounter. And they’re very easy to avoid because they often clump together, especially if the wine is left to settle for enough time. Fun fact: Champagne is always aged on lees, and this is why Champagne always smells like toast or brioche.
However, the lees are ejected from the bottle in a process called dégorgment, before it hits the store shelves.
The last kind of sediment you’ll find in wine.
You might also find, especially in natural wines, a fine-grained sediment made up of grape skins, seeds, and stems. This sediment is also found in unfiltered, unfined wines, and is a mark of low-intervention winemaking.
Why you shouldn’t worry about wine sediment.
With all three of these types of sediments, you’ll find that it’s all about your mindset. If you aren’t squeamish about kombucha or coffee grounds in your cup, you can easily become comfortable with the idea of wine sediment. In fact, many winemakers would prefer that you do.
Imagine this—you spend an entire year working around the clock to make sure that your grapevines ripen perfectly. You monitor the soil and the water, you pray away bad weather and crouch for an entire month to carefully pick the fruit and bring it to the winery. Then, you meticulously monitor the fermentation process, making sure that the wine gets just enough oxygen, but not so much that it spoils, and that the aromas are balanced and as complex as you can make them.
And then, after all of that, you have to decide between filtering out those nuanced aromatics that you worked so hard for, or delivering a wine with aromas intact but a small amount of sediment that some people will turn their nose up at. It’s a heartbreaking story, but many winemakers choose to filter their wine, knowing that a majority of the market won’t even give their wine a chance if they notice little crystals in it.
How to avoid drinking the sediment.
Even if you’re all for sediment, you still want to avoid drinking it, not because it isn’t safe, but because the texture is unpleasant. It’s like having a mouthful of coffee grounds—not horrible, but not exactly an experience to seek out. Lucky for you, there are plenty of ways to do this.
The trick is to handle your wine gently every step of the way. When you bring it home from the wineshop, store it on its side in a place where it won’t be bothered by vibration. Don’t shake and move it, just let it rest. The sediment will settle along the side of the bottle.
Then, when it’s time to drink it, carefully remove it, keeping it level. Place it on your table and let it rest there for an hour or so. You’ll soon be ready to pour a sediment-free glass of wine.
Fun fact: many bottles are shaped with a “shoulder” at the end of the neck. These are made so that you can slowly pour the wine, letting the sediment gather in the shoulder without pouring it into your glass. If you pour carefully, you can make use of this handy feature.
But if you don’t feel like worrying about sediment each time you pour a glass, you can simply decant the entire bottle at once and enjoy. Just pour carefully into the decanter, letting the sediment and a small amount of wine remain in your bottle. Your last option is to use a fine cocktail mesh strainer. These strainers are bar tools meant to catch tiny pieces of pulp, and they will filter your wine perfectly. They also have a handle so that they fit easily over your glass or decanter.
Not all wine has sediment.
Of course, not every bottle of wine has sediment. It’s more common to drink wine without sediment than it is to encounter it. If sediment just isn’t your thing, stick to middle-shelf, younger wines. There are plenty of delicious wines in this category so you won’t be missing out!
However, if you’re a wine enthusiast, you’ll come across it before long. You might even pull a cork out to find little crystals on the end of it. If you do, try to keep an open mind. Take a moment and inspect the sediment—some of them look like real diamonds! And know that the sediment is a sign that your wine has been handled with care every step of the way, so enjoy.
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