The Difference Between Autolysis And Aging On Lees

In the fascinating world of winemaking, particularly when it comes to crafting the exquisite flavors of white and sparkling wines, two key terms often come up: autolysis and aging on lees. While they may sound complex, they’re simply the processes that give these wines their unique depth and character. Let’s uncork these terms to understand how they transform a simple wine into a complex masterpiece.

The Art of Aging on Lees

  • What It Means: Aging on lees, or “sur lie” in French, is like giving the wine a prolonged spa treatment with the yeast cells. This method lets white and sparkling wines age gracefully on the remnants of yeast during the aging process, enriching the wines over time.
  • The Goal: This process aims to infuse the wine with added layers of flavor, making it creamier and more complex.
  • How It Works: After fermentation, the yeast cells have done their job and settle at the bottom. Instead of removing them, winemakers let the wine mingle with these lees. This can be for a few months or even years, depending on the desired outcome. This critical aging process can occur in various vessels—be it tanks, barrels, or directly in the bottle, as is the tradition with Champagne.
  • The Result: Wines that are not just about the fruit but carry intriguing notes of bread, biscuit, and nuts, adding richness and a delightful texture to every sip.

The Magic of Autolysis

  • What It Means: Autolysis is the specific biological process that occurs during the aging on lees. It is the breakdown of yeast cells by their own enzymes. The yeast cells gradually dissolve and release their contents into the wine.
  • The Goal: This self-digestion process enriches the wine with a variety of compounds, adding to its sensory appeal.
  • How It Works: As the yeast cells break down, they release amino acids and other flavorful compounds, slowly weaving complexity into the wine’s character.
  • The Creamy Twist: Thanks to autolysis, wines gain a creamy mouthfeel and develop sophisticated flavors like toast, biscuit, and brioche, enhancing the drinking experience.

A Toast to Complexity and Flavor

In essence, while aging on lees sets the stage for wines to develop added complexity and texture by resting with the dead yeast cells, autolysis is the behind-the-scenes hero, breaking down those yeast cells to enrich the wine further. Both processes play pivotal roles in elevating sparkling and white wines, contributing to their distinctive, rich taste profiles. So, the next time you enjoy a glass, you’ll appreciate not just the wine but the art and science that went into making it.

Take a quiz to test your knowledge

Written by

Bernard Marr has a deep passion for wine. He has written hundreds of articles on wine, including features for Forbes, covering wine-making and industry trends. Away from the world of wine, Bernard is a world-renown business and technology futurist. He is the award winning author of over 20 best-selling books and has a combined audience of nearly 4 million people across his social media channels and newsletters.

Wine Sections

Tasting and Enjoying Wine | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Tasting & Enjoying Wine

Understanding Wine Making | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Making

Understanding Wine Regions | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Regions

Understanding Grape Varieties | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Grape Varieties

Understanding Wine Labels | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Labels

The Wines of the World | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

The Wines of the World

Wine Trends & Technology | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine Trends & Technology

Wine and Food Pairing | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

My Wine Adventures

Wine & Food Diary | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine and Food Pairing

Wine Reviews | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine Reviews

Some of my most memorable wines