Ever taken a sip of wine and noticed something unexpectedly…crunchy in your mouth? No, those aren’t flavor crystals. Actually, okay, they are. In fact, they are exactly flavor crystals. The solids in your wine are kind of similar to the high intensity, rock-concert-in-your-mouth flavor crystals of Cinnaburst gum. Except these flavor crystals are made of dead yeast cells and grape solids, and are not intended to frighten authority figures.
Industry terminology: those crystals are technically called “dregs.” And yes, the knee-jerk reaction, dregs are bad. Usually, if someone offers you the dregs of something, you use the nearest available white glove to slap them in the face. But in winemaking, the dregs aren’t actually a bad thing. In fact, some winemakers put them (really, leave them) in the wine on purpose.
Don’t be scared by the name. Dregs are sediment sometimes found in a bottle, or glass, of wine. They’re made of yeast cells as well as leftover grape solids (stems, seeds, skin), tartrates (tartaric acid crystals), and any other solids leftover from the winemaking process. When the sediment’s in the wine barrel or vat, it’s called “lees.” So-called “gross lees” aren’t especially nasty, they’re just the first—and most abundant—particulate matter that any wine needs to be separated from. The “fine lees” are the aforementioned yeast-grape-tartaric acid sediment, not necessarily bad for a wine. In fact, some wines are intentionally aged in contact with the lees, or “sur lie,” to enhance flavor (especially useful in adding complexity to white wines like Chardonnay, Muscadet, and Champagne).
But a winemaker can also choose to “rack” the wine, meaning they separate the wine from the sediment. But if you find sediment—or dregs—in your glass, chances are it’s on purpose. It’s OK to drink them, or leave them behind.
Header image via Wikimedia Commons