You’ll likely have spotted the words ‘sur lie’ (translation ‘on the lees), printed on labels of, not only Champagne, but wine in general. In this article we take a look at what lees are and how they make their mark on a Champagne.
What are lees?
Lees refer to the dead yeast cells that accumulate in the bottle whilst a Champagne is undergoing secondary fermentation.
In time, the process brings a number of important flavours to the wine, which are collectively known as autolytic characters. The common notes you often find are those of biscuit, brioche and toast. In addition to this though, autolysis can bring added complexity and structure to the wine and, importantly, help to ward off oxidation.
What happens after the yeasts die?
As the wine ages in bottle the lees start to break down (decompose) releasing sugars and proteins. These give off the flavour profiles that we know and love in vintage wines. The secondary benefit of this is that proteins will combine with acids to soften wines.
Minimum and maximum lees ageing
In many appellations lees aging is left solely to the winemaker. In Champagne, however, there are minimum legal standards for lees ageing in both non vintage and vintage wines. Non vintage Champagne must have a minimum of 12 months on lees and 3 months post disgorgement ageing – a total of 15 months. Vintage wines are much stricter, requiring a minimum of 3 years on lees, although, in practice, most houses (and a lot of growers) see their wines age for far longer than this.
The benefits of long lees ageing
There are a number of benefits to long lees ageing. The first and perhaps least understood benefit is that of reduction. The dead yeast cells act as a perfect barrier against oxidation. Anyone who has tried a freshly disgorged 20+ year old wine will attest to how fresh and vibrant it can taste.
Secondly, as we have touched on above, flavour is the go to benefit that is most discussed. Lees ageing will bring a number of flavours from brioche and toast to nuts and cream. This brings greater depth and structure to wines and can really help to bring complexity in time. Coupled with this, lees ageing helps soften acidity as proteins given off by the lees combine with acids. This is one of the reasons why long lees aged wines require less dosage!
Key things to consider
One of the obvious things to mention is that not all wines require long lees ageing. Only wines with enough structure and acidity will benefit from extended time in contact with the dead yeast.
Post disgorgement ageing is often overlooked but is also massively important. Of course, you can open and drink bottles straight away and they will be delicious but, if you can resist the urge, so much more of the benefit of lees ageing will be acquired with time in bottle after the yeast has been removed. On disgorgement, wines can feel taught and lack expression, as the shock of disgorgement forces the wine to close down. To avoid this risk and allow the bottle to best express the beauty of all that lees ageing we recommend holding it for at least a year after disgorgement.
Bottles to seek out…
Finding long lees aged bottles is not easy. In fact, they are almost impossible to find in Grower Champagne circles. That said, Sip Champagnes wasn’t created to follow the well-trodden path, so we set about speaking with our amazing winemakers to hold stock back and disgorge especially for us! This started with the phenomenal Jean Velut Lumiere et Craie Sip Edition which is a late disgorged, perpetual reserve Chardonnay. Next came the limited release Demiere’s Oenoteck No.1, with a whopping 162 months (13.5 years) on lees.
Now, we’ve gone further still… The latest iterations to enter the Sip cellars are the stunning Caillez Lemaire Vinotheque 2006 and Caillez Lemaire Vinotheque 2004 which have seen a staggering 15 and 18 years on lees respectively. Yes, you read that right! This generation on the lees has created a wonderful myriad of flavours. We sampled both bottles at our Caillez Lemaire dinners in London and Edinburgh where they were universally well received but, rest assured, they will still age for another decade or so without issue! Both are limited release and exclusively available worldwide through Sip Champagnes. Get them while you can.