First off, other than looking bad, none of it will ruin the wine or make you sick. In fact in some winemaking processes (old world) tartrate crystals can be a sign of a quality wine. That’s okay, but it still makes my teeth feel gritty and it give me the sensation of drinking sand in my wine. So what is the stuff and how do we deal with it if we want to get rid of it?
Sediment in wine falls into three classes, “Lees”, “Aging Sediment” and “Tartrate Crystals” each of which occur for different reasons at different times in the winemaking process. I’ll take them in the order they occur in the the process.
- “Lees” occur in the initial fermentation process and in fact are the residue of the grape, yeasts, seeds, skins and rachis that naturally occur when the grapes get crushed and the wine goes into the initial fermentation tanks to begin its life as a wine. Assuming that the wine is handled properly all this stuff which settles to the bottom of the tank, really add to the complexity and character of a wine. Most of this stuff gets removed in the clarification process which occurs when the wine makes it’s move from its initial fermentation tank to an aging vat. More “lees” will form in the aging vats so it is not uncommon for winemakers to move the wine into new vats several time to further the clarification process as the wine ages. This is a tricky process for the winemaker as he or she has to make quality and character decisions as this process moves forward. each winemaker has a different idea on where they want their wine to end up and the longer it stays in contact with “lees” the more intricate the wine becomes and the more character it will develop. In modern winemaking, we seldom see “lees” in a bottle as the filtration processes have reached a very high level of sophistication. Makers of sparkling wines and some old style winemakers will leave some in the bottle to create a secondary fermentation that give the wine it’s bubbly or effervescent quality.
- “Aging Sediment” occurs most commonly in Vin de Garde (see lexicon for definition) red wines that have a number of years under their belts. If you have an old wine you can probably assume it has some sediment and you will want to get rid of it before drinking as it tends to be bitter and can really ruin your day. If I have any doubt I’ll hold a bottle up to a light and look for sediment. If I detect any, I’ll let to bottle rest standing up for several hours, even a day for special wines, before beginning the decanting process. I’ll discuss ways to rid a wine of sediment toward the end of this post. Almost always decant old wines, it both helps in ridding them of the aging sediment and it exposes them to air which can help rid older wines of some oth their mustiness.
- “Crystalline Sediment” while it exist in the bottle it usually gets noticed in the bottom of a wine glass in what seems like tiny bits of sand when you get to the bottom of the glass.. They can also look like clumps of rock candy sugar or rock salt crystals. They are totally harmless and neither make the wine taste bad nor have an unpleasant taste in their own right but for most people the sensation of drinking sand is not a big hit. Particularly in traditional winemaking parts of the world they are viewed by some as a sign of quality. “Tartrate”, as these crystals are known is a by-product of tartrate acid naturally found in most grapes. It results from the bonding of tartrate acid and potassium during the fermentation process and crystallizes as the alcohol in the wine forms because tartrate acid is not soluble in alcohol.This phenomenon appears most often in red wines which are not generally stored in really cold conditions (cold setting hinder tartrate development) and frankly occurs more in wines that get processed in the more traditional european methods which don’t rely so much on modern cold stabilization and filtration processes.
Okay so now we have identified the sludge in the bottom of the bottle but we still don’t want to drink it so what do we do about it. If we want to be truly traditional we let the wine rest standing up for an hour or so to settle the sediment to the bottom of the bottle. Next set a decanter on a table with a candle (shorter than the decanter) next to it and we hold the neck of the wine bottle very carefully over the flame of the candle (not to close) so we can see the light through the wine as it passes the neck. Now slowly pour the wine into the decanter, all the time looking through the small stream of wine in the neck of the wine for the presence of sediment. Once you see sediment, stop pouring and if there is still a lot of wine (more than half a glass) left in the bottle let it settle to the bottom and serve the decanted portion. Before the decanter empties, repeat the filtering process with the settled bottle. This time you should only have a small amount of sludge and wine remaining in the bottom of the bottle after you have decanted it. What left goes down the drain as you rinse the bottle before recycling it.
I you’re like me that’s way too much work and pomp and circumstance. I prefer simpler methods, I generally use a wine sediment filter that I got as a gift for Christmas years ago. It’s very functional except that it is Sterling Silver and I get to polish it way too often. Today many varieties exist and many don’t require so much effort to maintain The picture to the left show my sludge disposal set up. I simply slide the funnel into the top of the decanter, insert the screen into the top of the funnel and pour away. If the sludge is really fine I have been known to put a two inch square patch of food grade cheesecloth inside the screen to catch the really small stuff.
I have a number of friends that think I am way too formal with the process and they get down and dirty. If your with them or simply don’t have a wine filter (a small sieve and a plastic funnel do nicely), take a simple coffee filter and form it into a cone and set in the top of a quart mason jar and pour the wine through the filter. Hey it works and I will confess that I don’t see that it harms the wine. Okay maybe I wouldn’t use this method with a first growth Grand Cru Bordeaux, but for most wines that I drink it is fine. At the end of the day any method that get rid of the sludge and doesn’t ruin the wine works. Incidentally I made the assumption that you were entertaining and would drink the entire bottle. If it is just you and you drink a glass or two in an evening any of these methods work fine by the glass. In fact the first pours from the bottle will likely not need filtration at all if the bottle is well rested and bottom settled. One final note, it really doesn’t matter what kind of sludge you find in the bottle, the filtration methods will be pretty similar and just as effective.
I hope you have enjoyed my blog posts so far and maybe even learned a trick or two. I have a good list of topics I plan to write about in the next weeks, but I would love to have some questions and suggestions from my readers, so that I know what interests you and the kind of stuff you would like to see as I expand and improve Poor Robert’s (Wine) Almanac.