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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I recently purchased a half-case of a very good 2001 Cabernet. I was surprised at the amount of sediment it had. I set a glass aside to see if it would clear up, but it didn’t. Seemed to me it wasn’t all tannin precipitates, but maybe some dregs from the bottom of a barrel. What effect might this have on the wine’s maturation?
—Bill H., Three Rivers, Calif.
Sediment is perfectly harmless, and it won’t affect how a wine ages—except that most wines will just get more and more sediment as time goes on.
There are two main causes of sediment. The first is that it’s just present during most of a wine’s life. Dead yeast cells, bits of grapes and seeds, tartrates and polymers are constantly settling to the bottom of a tank or barrel. Some winemakers like to remove most traces of this sediment before bottling. Others think that leaving sediment adds to both the flavor and texture of a wine, and will bottle a wine without filtering (trapping the sediment), fining (adding an agent that binds to the sediment, and then filtering it out), or both. I’m guessing the wine you had wasn’t filtered or fined on purpose, as part of the house style.
The second reason for sediment is that it’s a byproduct of aging. As a wine ages, phenolic molecules combine to form tannin polymers that fall to the bottom of the bottle. I generally start thinking about sediment with wines about 10 years older than their vintage date, so I’m not surprised to hear about your 9-year-old wine with marked sediment.
Though sediment is harmless, it can be unpleasant and gritty, so you should think about decanting the wine. Treat these bottles gently—sloshing them around will stir up the sediment. Leave them still as much as possible, and when you’re getting ready to open one, ideally you should let it sit upright for a day or two in your cellar so the sediment will settle to the bottom of the bottle. Decant it slowly, with the neck of the bottle near a light source (a candle if you’re a romantic, a flashlight if you’re more practical) and stop pouring the moment you see any sign of sediment in the neck.
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