Sediment & the Rhône

By / Magazine / November 11th, 2014 / 14

What causes sediment in some wine?

First we have to clarify (no pun intended) what you mean by sediment. Are you asking about the chunky monkeys that you sometimes find in a red or fortified wine? Or maybe you mean the glass-like crystals that magically materialize in some white wines.

Either way, while coming across those kinds of floaties may not be the most visually appealing thing on Earth, they’re naturally occurring, harmless and are generally considered a sign of quality.

This “good sediment” develops in a variety of ways. In those reds and fortifieds, it either shows up because the juice was not filtered before bottling or your vino is starting to show its age.

Why would a winery not filter? For a time there, the idea that sediment (made up of a combination of dead yeast cells, fragments of grape guck, tartrates and a myriad of other molecules spawned during fermentation) enhanced a wine’s flavour was all the rage. Fancy-pants wine critics fell over themselves praising that added goodness, and winemakers responded with output that fit the profile. That sentiment is a lot less prevalent in this new millennium.

Much like you and I, as a wine matures, things start to fall apart. What’s bad for us is actually good for a wine — especially if it’s a mucho macho brawny red. As time passes the tannins and colour pigments in reds start to soften; separating from the liquid they either coat the inside of the bottle or fall to its bottom. It’s a part of the aging process and makes the wine all the more enjoyable in the glass.

Tartrates (tartaric acid in a solid form) are the primary culprits in white wine. Chilling brings them to life so a winery can clear most (but not necessarily all) of them up with a little cold stabilization. If a white wine gets the cold shoulder somewhere along the way to your local liquor store, any remaining tartrates may make a guest appearance and stay put.

Again, there’s nothing to fear. In fact, because of their gem-like look, and how much they are revered, tartrates crystals are often called wine diamonds.

Admittedly, a mouthful of bitter sediment doesn’t turn my corkscrew. Just give your purchase the once-over against a bright light source and if it’s throwing, let it sit upright for an hour or so, then simply decant the unwanted particles out of that puppy and serve.

I love the wines from France’s Rhône region. What’s the difference between the juice from the southern and northern parts of the valley?

I share your love. France took it on the chin the hardest when the initial wave of New World wines hit shore and, unlike Italy and Spain, has struggled to find the momentum to support a major comeback ever since.

The Rhône Valley has been the one bright light. Renowned for some masterful blending techniques that create undeniably drinkable wines, the region has become the gateway back to France for a whole new generation of oenophiles.

As you mention, it’s considered the sum of two parts: The northern Rhône and the southern Rhône. While climate certainly differentiates one from the other (continental in the north and Mediterranean in the south), the grape focus of each really defines their individuality.

The north is the home of Syrah (a red grape you may also know by the name Shiraz), which gives its wines darker, more brooding personalities. While Syrah is big in the south as well, the fruit-forward Grenache leads the way where it is blended with a cornucopia of other indigenous grapes. Need an example? Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the south’s most famous son, is a mega combination of up to 19 different grapes. Vive la France!


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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