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

Sparkling wines put fizz into food and drink festival

Sparkling wines review

I got a bit giddy a few days ago. I was in the right place to be giddy, at a food and drink festival. Alongside me were several other giddy people, though they were only giddy after they’d been with me for a while.

I helped to run a wine tasting session (with fellow wine writer Andrew Campbell) on sparkling wines at Feast, a festival in the beautiful setting of Conwy. I didn’t need much encouragement to be involved, only the promise of a bed before the journey back home the next day.

Jane Clare wine tasting
Jane Clare, giddy

It was great to share “geeky” things with new people. They just kept popping out of my mouth in my overall  giddiness as I talked about the wine.

First Geek Lesson:

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like a wine just because other people do.

Second Geek Lesson:

Be brave and step outside your comfort zones. If you like something then embrace it; but try not to like it to the exclusion of other wines.

Third Geek Lesson:

Chill sparklers in a bucket with ice and water, not just the ice on its own. Then the entire bottle is in contact with the cold blast, not just the pointy icy bits.

Fourth Geek Lesson:

Hold a glass by its stem, not the bowl of the glass. This isn’t a stick-your-little-finger-out posh thing to do, but stops you warming up white wine as you grasp it.  (Note to people at parties: Who gives a hoot about this Geek Lesson.)

The wines. First up prosecco and a fun fact for my giddy gang. Last Christmas one supermarket chain sold more prosecco than milk. Not a bad choice for the cornflakes.

Sainsbury Conegliano prosecco
Sainsbury Conegliano prosecco

Taste the Difference Conegliano  Prosecco  Superiore DOCG 2013 (£10, Sainsbury)  was this year’s International Wine Challenge Great Value Sparkling under £12, and the IWC Champion Great Value Sparkling Wine this year. I’ve praised this pear and apple-fresh wine before, and no doubt I’ll do so again.  (General geeky tip:  Look out for a DOCG prosecco, which is higher quality than DOC).

Okhre Natur Brut Cava (M&S, £10.99) I was excited to share this with my giddies.  I love cava and was disappointed to read a reviewer say that this was a “nice alternative to prosecco”. No! At what point does one-dimensional prosecco have any of the characterful nuances of cava?  This had multi-layered apple and lime freshness, with bready hints and burnt caramel (much like butterscotch).

Next up and some oohs and aahs around a peaches and cream soft fizz with undercurrents of apples and limes. A real squeeze of acidity watered the mouth as bubbles danced. More oohs and aahs when I revealed it was Aldi Cremant de Loire, a perfect snip at £6.79 for any occasion. Who needs an occasion?

Franciacorta Brut M&S
Franciacorta Brut M&S

Other gorgeous wines we showcased included Franciacorta Brut  (M&S, £18.99) which was a new one on me and stunning. If you have just under £20 in your pocket and fancy a change from Champagne then head in the direction of this Italian delight. I wrote down marzipan and almonds, with melting buttery biscuits.

Les Pionniers Champagne review
Les Pionniers Champagne

The Co-op’s Les Pionniers 2004 vintage champagne (£24.99) is a world-beating champion treat,  zesty and nutty.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee
Nyetimber Classic Cuvee

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2009(£35.99, Majestic )  is another IWC gold winner and was served on  Royal occasions to mark the jubilee last year.  English wine royalty in its own right,  it is creamy, complex, with apricots and wisps of melon and brioche.

Araldica Brachetto d'Acqui review
Araldica Brachetto d’Acqui

Finally, Araldica Brachetto d’Acqui (£10.99, Virgin Wines) this scrumptious deep pink strawberry pot of sparkles didn’t last long in anybody’s glass. I can see the chappie in front of me now, like Oliver, who kept asking for more.

All in all, I think we managed to put a sparkle into everybody’s weekend.

Published in the saturday extra magazine November 1 2014 

Liverpool Echo – South Wales Echo – Daily Post Wales – Huddersfield Examiner – The Chronicle, Newcastle – Teesside Evening Gazette – Birmingham  Mail – Coventry Telegraph – Paisley Daily Expresss