Stirring the lees: Watch it happening AND learn about yeast. It’s a wine blog bargain

Château La Louvière Pessac-Léognan

I have no idea how many times I’ve used the term “stirring the lees” and some of you might think oh here she goes again, talking that wine gobbledegook nonsense. Finally I’ve seen it in action, thanks to a peekaboo glass side to an oak barrel.

You’re also thinking, well I’m pleased for you Jane, now you’ve seen that stirring thing in action, but what has that got to do with me? Well, if you’ve ever had a glass of wine (or two) ever, ever, ever, then the wine might have had a touch of lees stirring before it finished its journey on this earth to be clutched by you.

Château La Louvière is in the heart of the Pessac-Léognan AOC in Bordeaux, which is renowned for its white wines, and we were shown round the winery by Vincent Cruège, the director of exterior relations.  It is there we stirred the lees but more of that in a minute.


Stirring the lees: What is the role of yeast?

Yeast converts the sugars in grape must into alcohol. Ok, ok, more gobbledegook right there – let me start again. The must can be the juices, skins and pulp from the harvested grapes. It contains natural sugars and the yeast is added to the must and then the yeast gets greedy and giddy, consumes the sugars, the by-product is alcohol, and eventually the yeast dies.

The majority of the time winemakers will add a specific yeast to the must which they know will react in a certain way to give them the style of wine they want. This is called innoculation. Sometimes winemakers will rely on the yeasts naturally occurring on the skins of the grapes and in the winery’s atmosphere as the catalyst of their fermentation. There are technical risks to producing wines like that, but wines from this so-called wild ferment can be very expressive and interesting.

Fermenting white wine at chateau la louviere Bordeaux and stirring the lees

The glass above might not look very exciting, but I was excited, yes indeedy. This is yeast doing its job, right there, right then, in sauvignon blanc grapes harvested at the Château La Louvière vineyards just a week before my visit.  This “wine in progress” from grapes grown on clay had already developed delightful aromas of tropical fruits.

Pineapple chunks, I kept saying. Nobody paid me any attention, no doubt thinking I was the mad Northern bird in the corner and it was best to leave me alone.


Stirring the lees: What is this lees thing then?

Right. So I’ve mentioned the yeast dies when it has converted all the sugar into alcohol.  But bear with me on this, because I’m just going to go off at a tangent.

Sometimes the winemaker decides they don’t WANT the yeast to have all the sugar to itself and those clever wine expert people want to SAVE some of the sugary sweetness for us to enjoy in our glasses of wine.

They’ll kill the yeast (there’s a handful of techniques) in the middle of its sugar-flurry, which means some of the natural sweetness of the grapes still remains in the wine and the winemaker can now develop the style of wine they want with the level of sweetness they want.

When do they do this? Well, in port for one. That’s why port is so sweet – but it is high in alcohol because it is fortified with high levels of alcohol  which kills off the yeast before it has chance to guzzle all the natural sugars.

Back to the theme: The dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the fermentation vessel (which could be stainless steel, new oak, old oak, or even concerete).  Whatever the container, the dead yeast cells have nowhere to go but down. Once there they could be mingling with small particles of pulp, grape skin and other tiny, tiny, molecules from the fermentation process. This little gathering is called the lees. Hurrah, I got there in the end.


Stirring the lees: Watch it happening right here

Have a look at this very quick Instagram clip before I tell you what’s going on here. I’m very grateful to Mary Dardenne from decantertours.com  who had the wherewithal to capture Vincent Cruège stirring the lees as I faffed around on the left getting nowhere. Don’t blink, don’t look at me, just press play and look through the glass on the side of the barrel.


Stirring the lees: Why do winemakers want to mix it all up?

You’ve seen it now, all that swirling and stirring and floaty bits in their whirlpool of wine. There was even a special metal gadget to do the deed, which looked like a very long kebab skewer.  The deed has a name  – lees stirring is known as bâtonnage. But why go to all the trouble?

Well,  flavour my friends, and that thing called “mouth feel” which is a touch of creaminess. The cells in the lees have kind of gone “phew” and “pop” and are releasing their molecules into the wine.  Which is great for the wine at the bottom of the vessel, soaking up all the goodness like a German on a sunbed,  but the wine at the top is looking down and saying, hey, what about me!

That’s why people like Vincent come along, and the scores of winemakers and experts across the winemaking globe, and stir it up a bit. There’s several ways this can happen – the “kebab stick” is just one.

There’s also some technical reasons why the lees is stirred, one being that if it isn’t then the wine sitting on top of it can develop unpleasant chemical aromas similar to cabbage.


Stirring the lees:  Does this happen to every wine?

No.

One of the things I love about the world of wine is that there are so many techniques available to a winemaker. Just think British Bake Off  – in the technical challenge the bakers have the same ingredients but are doing things in slightly different ways. If you put two winemakers in a winery with the same raw ingredients they’re likely to make different decisions to create a wine in their preferred style. Lees stirring is one of those things.

Some wines are racked off the lees fairly soon after completion of fermentation, to retain a fresher, crisper wine, untouched by the complexities of the lees.

I’ve simplifed a broad subject here  – but next time you perceive a wine has a creamy sensation, then it might just have had a touch of lees contact. There you go.


  • I visited Bordeaux in a press trip hosted by the Bordeaux Wine Council (the CIVB) and our guide was Mary Dardenne from decantertours.com.
  • Find out more about Bordeaux wines here – and Château La Louvière here

Travel: Explore the best of Bordeaux on a Viking River Cruise

Viking River Cruise Arcachon Bay
Jane Clare experiences an 8-day tour of the waters of Bordeaux, courtesy of Viking River Cruises and its Heart of Bordeaux itinerary.

I’d never been treated like royalty until I joined a Viking River Cruise. I imagine, back in the day, that Viking princesses (if they existed) were very pampered ladies indeed.

I hope they enjoyed the complimentary sparkling wine which was left in their cabins because I certainly did.

The royal treatment began the moment we arrived at Bordeaux airport and we left it cocooned in the comfort of one of Viking’s luxury coaches. As we boarded the Viking Forseti longship the crew lined up, greeted us with handshakes and smiles, then we were escorted to our room.

We were delighted with our verandah stateroom. It had ample space to store cases under a seriously comfy bed. Our bathroom included a loo, shower cubicle and underfloor heating. Warm feet. Joy.

Patio doors opened onto a balcony with a table and chairs, perfect for  cheeky glasses of sparkling wine (a bottle and fresh fruit were left in our cabin most days). We also had a fridge, useful to chill any leftover bubbles (yeh, right).

Bordeaux, where we joined the longship for our seven night Viking river cruise, was once nicknamed La Belle Endormie (the sleeping beauty). In recent years it has been rejuvenated.

The city is a World Heritage site with stunning 18th century facades looking out across the Garonne river. There are architectural gems such as Cathedral Saint Andre and the gorgeous Place de la Bourse, which was commissioned by King Louis XV.

We unpacked and enjoyed our first stroll on the riverfront esplanade alongside cyclists, lovers, mums, dads, kids, roller skaters and happy dogs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were here because Bordeaux is the greatest wine region in the world and for a week the Viking Forseti cruises the Gironde, which is classed as an estuary, and its two main tributaries the Garonne and the Dordogne. Famous wine districts including Libourne, Saint-Émilion, Sauternes, Pauillac, Margaux, Bourg and Blaye were on our itinerary.

I was very excited. I like a glass of wine.

Wine, understandably, is the draw for most people who choose this Viking river cruise. Forseti has its own sommelier, Frank, who spends much of his time sharing his wine knowledge. Luckily for us, he spent much of his time pouring it too.  

Our first evening began with cocktails, nibbles and sparkles. Captain Pascal, Michael the hotel manager, Bruno the Maître d’ and Susann  the programme director, outlined the week ahead.

Viking River Cruise canapes
First night canapes

Then Chef Pascal raised many an “oooh” and “aaah” plus impromptu applause as he described our welcome meal.  Our starters that night included red wine risotto or octopus; the mains, duck in orange sauce, or cod with chorizo and clams. There’s also daily staple choices such as steak or a caesar salad.

Each day Pascal served up an ooh and aaah clapometer and each evening Frank shared some matching wines.

That night, with talkative company and the sun glinting on the Garonne and across glorious rooftops, the food and wine went down very well indeed.

I was as giddy as a mouse in a cheese shop on our first full day as we were heading to Cadillac and a Sauternes wine tasting.

We had been expecting to cruise upstream along the Garonne River to Cadillac but the tides were such that the captain decided we should remain in Bordeaux.

Château Guiraud sauternes cruise

Instead our luxury coaches took us to historic Cadillac and we ambled round its bastioned towers and city walls. Then it was on to Château Guiraud. A winery tour and a few tasting glasses of Sauternes wine was reward enough for missing out on a longship in motion.

It was lunchtime on Monday when the ship left Bordeaux. We were enjoying lunch outside on the Aquavit Terrace as the moorings were finally slipped.  We ate lunch on the terrace every day, our wine glinting in sunshine sparkled glasses.

So we set sail, or whatever longships do. The countryside around Bordeaux is pretty, but fairly flat, so don’t expect to look out on stunning scenery and tucked-away mountain vineyards. These are working waterways and a couple of times we saw Airbus A380 sections float by on barges heading for assembly in Toulouse.

Meanwhile, I was hooked on the Google Maps sat nav, saying things like “ooh, look look! Chateau Margaux is over there but you can’t see it!” which my other half took to mean a) I’d had too much wine and b) I’m a wine geek.

The following morning Susann announced on the ship’s intercom that we were leaving for a visit to Château Siaurac at 9am. In other words, finish your toast. Breakfasts were stunning by the way; waiter service or buffet.

bodeaux viking river cruise sunsetWe were moored in Bourg, an ancient port town nestled between the Dordogne and the Gironde. The previous night a handful of us had taken a horse drawn carriage to the citadel at the top of Bourg, where we drank red Bordeaux and looked across the rivers as the sun went down. A memorable red-tinged moment in more ways than one.

At Château Siaurac we were welcomed by Paul Goldschmidt, the manager of the estate, whose humour, knowledge and hospitality knew no bounds.

Imagine opening your home to scores of strangers who wander around the vineyards, then peek in your private rooms. Imagine keeping on top of the dusting. Imagine those strangers then drink your wine.

Paul was gracious and unflappable and talked us through a wine tasting.  Then lunch was served, with more wine. It was turning out to be tough, this trip.  

There were several excursions across the week, some included in the pre-paid package and others optional.

The latter included a day hunting and tasting truffles; a trip to Cognac (I saw guests return flush-faced); and a day at beautiful, beautiful Arcachon Bay, the home of  many oyster farms –  basically its the oyster bed of France.

It was here I ate oysters for the first time, apprehensively I must say, but they were amazing. I squeezed a squint of lemon and slipped an oyster into my mouth with its light salty freshness. I washed them down with glass of Bordeaux blanc and the all-day adventure couldn’t have been more perfect.

One of our favourite moments of these few days was in Saint-Émilion. Under the wing of our expert guide we’d walked cobbled streets, visited cloisters, peeked in wine shops, taken in the beauty of medieval buildings.

Then we were left to our own devices in the shadow of the bell tower of Saint-Émilion’s 12th century Monolithic Church. We looked out over the rooftops and below, in the shadow of the church, we could see a cafe and an empty table.

In this famous wine region, in this famous wine town, we nipped down for a beer and silently watched the world go by. Bliss.

On our last night on board, Chef Pascal and the crew served a farewell dinner. The wine flowed, the food was praised, new friends chatted and laughed.

We reflected on dinner the previous evening, where most of the ship’s chefs, waiters and all the hospitality team had served a wonderful meal in the grounds of Château  Kirwan in Margaux.

The crew had been given a huge round of applause; not just for that night, but for the Royal treatment they’d given us all week. I loved being a Viking princess for a few days.

First published in Trinity Mirror regional titles, Autumn 201

  • Jane Clare stayed on the Viking Forseti in a verandah stateroom. Travel from the UK was included. Viking offers cruises in Europe, Russia, and Asia. For details go to www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk 
    Wines, soft drinks and beers were complimentary with on board dinner and lunches. A separate wine list was available and other drinks were signed for and settled at the end of the trip.   
  • Be prepared to tip. Envelopes are left in cabins at the end of the week with  guidance on the customary amount. 
    The five optional tours on the Viking River Cruise, per person, started at 84 euros (Château Siaurac) up to 159 euros (Arcachon).

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.