Sur lie is one of those wine-speak labeling terms that I can't explain to someone without heading down a rabbit hole. People love to think of wine as romantic and then you tell them about dead yeast cells.
If sur lie sounds vaguely familiar, it's likely you've seen it on a bottle of Muscadet—the fresh, minerally white from France's Loire Valley. Sur lie is just a French term for 'on the lees,' and lees are the deposits at the bottom of a tank after fermentation. It's a cloudy mix of yeast cells (mostly dead) and particles from the grapes. Picture what a bowl of miso soup looks like when you let it sit for a while.
If it's on a wine label or mentioned by a winery, it means after fermentation has finished, the wine stays in contact with lees in a tank or barrel (or bottle if its sparkling wine). The length of resting time ranges from a few months to over a year. A common span would run from autumn until spring when it's time to bottle the wine.
So what's the purpose of all this? As the lees break down, they add character and complexities to the wine, often nutty or toasty flavours, as well as a creamy texture (these traits are sometimes confused with oak influence). Aging sur lie can also protect the wine from oxidation.
What wine benefits from sur lie aging? Wine with flavours that will complement those imparted by lees (think toasty, nutty, and creamy-textured). Probably not the fresh aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blanc or Ortega, but a grape like Chardonnay makes sense.
But taste for yourself... here are some great Chardonnays available on My Wine Canada that are aged sur lie:
Ridge Road 2010 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay from Niagara, ON.
13th Street Winery 2012 June's Vineyard Chardonnay also from Niagara, ON.
EastDell 2012 Black Label Chardonnay from Niagara, ON.
Jake Skakun is a writer and sommelier from Vancouver, currently living in Toronto. He can be found most days pulling corks and twisting caps at the Black Hoof. He Tweets and Instagrams @jakeskakun.