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We had a wonderful couple come into the tasting room this weekend. Both of them relatively new to the appreciation and consumption of fine wine, they had previously been in the winery and absolutely fell in love with the 2010 Andis Grenache. A few nights later while enjoying the bottle they brought home with them, they were bothered to discover a bit of dark grainy sediment in the last glass of the evening. Wondering what had gone wrong they diligently trekked back to the winery the following weekend (a tough assignment indeed) to see what was amiss with the wine. I was very happy to be there to chat with them as we have found that sediment is one of the most misunderstood aspects to wine consumption. So I told them the truth – “sediment happens”. Here is the best explanation of bottle sediment I have run across:
The tiny crystals you find in your wine glass, and sometimes first in the wine bottle … are not only the least likely to taste bad, but are treated by some as a sign of a better wine. If you find crystal sediment in your wine glass, there's no reason to worry or fret.
The crystal sediment you might find is called tartrate and forms from naturally occurring tartaric acid in grapes. Not all fruit has tartaric acid and its presence in grapes is what allows us to make better wines from grapes than we can from any other fruit. Because tartaric acid doesn't remain dissolved in alcohol as easily as it does in grape juice, it binds to potassium after fermentation and forms potassium acid tartrates — the crystalline solids creating the sediment in your wine glass. Because red wines have probably been less exposed to cold temperatures than white wines, they are more likely to form tartrate crystals.
In theory all wines should probably form tartrate sediment, but modern wine production has introduced cold stabilization and fine filtration which remove most to all tartrates. More expensive wines that have been created according to more traditional methods, thus eschewing cold stabilization and filtration, are more likely to produce tartrate sediment. People who prefer the traditional methods of wine production, which includes a lot of wine drinkers in France and Italy, will treat the presence of tartrate sediment as a sign of quality.
The tartrate sediment in your wine glass or bottle won't hurt you if you consume it and it isn't going to ruin the flavor of your wine, so you don't need to worry about separating the crystals from your wine before serving and drinking. However, there is also no value in consuming this sediment so don't go out of your way to do so.
So not only is sediment not bad, it’s good!! Sure it's not the best to have a mouthful of tartrate crystals as the final memory of a great bottle of wine, but with some gentle decanting and a little patience, that is easily avoided. To me it's always a sign of a less manipulated, less processed wine, and in the era of mass production that is a nice thing indeed!