« previous post | next post »

I've been collecting wine tasting notes as part of an exploration of evaluative language, and have learned some new words as a result, among them leesy.

Here are some examples from the Beverage Tasting Institute:

Exotic, leesy yeast, cream, and golden apple nose.
Heady, leesy, creamy, honeyed nose.
Lush, leesy brown spice aromas show an integrated oak accent.
Perfumed, leesy talc and sweet citrus nose.
Broad, waxy, leesy aromas show a subtle honeyed quality.

Or these from Wine Enthusiast magazine:

Yellowing and leesy in character, with a deep, brooding style.
There's a strong leesy, cheesy note on top of apple and peach fruit, …
It has a wonderful leesy texture that enlivens the palate, …
Starts off a bit nutty and leesy, with those aromas balanced by white peaches.

The OED tells us that lee is "The sediment deposited in the containing vessel from wine and some other liquids", noting that the word is "Obs. exc. in pl."

But the derived form leesy is not in the OED as yet, nor in MW, nor in other dictionaries I've tried. Wordnik finds no definitions but gives plenty of winetalk examples from here and there. The glossary of cooking terms at recipetips.com explains leesy as

Descriptor of a wine that possesses a rich aroma and/or flavor that is a direct result of the wine resting on the lees. Lees are the solids, a result of fermentation, that are found on the bottom of a vat. These solid particles are comprised of grape skins, pulp, and yeast.

This seems to be a relatively recent addition to the vocabulary of winetalk — thus it's not in Michael Broadbent, Wine tasting: a practical handbook on tasting & tastings, 1976; nor in John Gottfried and Patricia Gottfried, A wine tasting course: the practical way to know and enjoy wine, 1978. On the other hand, it's also not in Ronald Jackson, Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, 2009, which nevertheless does explain that

Slow, continuous effervescence is favored by prolonged contact between yeast lees and the wine. After several months, yeasts autolysis (self-digestion) releases cell-wall constituents (colloidal mannoproteins) into the wine. The weak bonds formed between carbon dioxide and these proteins are thought essential to the production of a steady stream of bubbles following opening.

A glossary from Wine Magazine, published 2004, gives

Leesy – creamy richness imparted to wine from sitting on the lees (dead yeast cell deposits after fermentation), most obvious in white wines and bubblies.

A Wine Magazine article from 7/29/2002 has

Two things stood out he said: complexity of the nose with far more toasty biscuit, lime and leesy autolytic character coming to the fore and the long drawn out, lingering limey acidity "which you don't get with MCC".

Lots of vigorous bead. Leesy, cheesy nose – hint of sourdough bread.

Leesy apple nose with some lemon notes.

And a Beverage Tasting Institute review from 4/1/2002 reads:

Deep yellow-straw hue. Generous, leesy, smoky nose. A sharp entry leads to a racy, medium-bodied palate with good cut. Taut, clean, and angular. Drink now.

Those are the earliest example that I've found, in a few minutes of searching.

So apparently leesy was not in general winetalk use as of 1978, but had become a normal descriptive term by 2002 or so. Can someone document its history over the intervening 24 years?


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    "Leesy" shows up as an adjective in this 1857 book. It doesn't seem to be winetalk as such in this case, but it's certainly an adjectival form of "lees".

  2. h. s. gudnason said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    That's interesting. The word is clearly a good thing, though I'd have guessed that it was meant as a pejorative until I saw it in context and read the explanation.

    It's also interesting to see autolysis used here. The French word autolyse–identified as a loan word–has begun appearing in the last five years or so as a step in bread making. (I just checked Google Books, and find French and German sources back to the 19th century, an English scientific book from the 1920s, but popular writing beginning first in 1999.) After the yeast (and sometimes the starter) is mixed with the flour and water and initially kneaded, the dough is supposed to rest for about twenty minutes before salt is added and kneading continues. "Self-digestion" is clearly what's happening. And in the texts I've read the step has been presented as something that has always been done in traditional breadmaking. So it's interesting that it's just now (I think) being written of in English, and is still treated as a foreign term, usually italicized and not nativized to autolysis, which apparently does exist as an English word in oenology.

  3. Ross Presser said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    Found a 2001 instance in Google Books:

    Zin: the history and mystery of Zinfandel
    Da Capo Press, Feb 20, 2001
    "CKZ (from a vineyard owned by Charles Cooke): "Cherry- raspberry nose; nice flavors going on; a little bit of a leesy quality; a hint of brininess. That's one of the things wine goes through."

    And even older:
    Principles of Food Chemistry
    Springer, 1999
    This chart on page 292 has "Leesy" near the top, slightly right of center. The chart itself is credited as being from 1987.

  4. Ross Presser said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    One more, from 1985:

    Practical winery, Volume 6
    Don Neel and Associates, 1985


    (and yes, this volume is actually from 1985. I checked the copyright page)

  5. mollymooly said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    From the meaning and origin I deduce that "leesy" has the otherwise unexpected pronunciation /lizi/ rather than /lisi/. The unusual preservation of -s plural in derivative evinces the rarity of singular "lee".

    I am an evangelist for the explicative power of the hyphen, but in this case the spelling "lees-y" would not really have helped.

  6. Flink said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    I think Michael Silverstein at Chicago was working on this some years back (circa 2001/2?): he may have some documentation on this.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    Speaking of Mollymooly's comment, here's a hit on "lees-y" from the novelist Jay McInerney's nonfiction Bacchus and Me (copyright 2000, 2002), one from Wine Enthusiast, Volume 13 (apparently 2000), and one from Decanter, Volume 13(apparently 1994).

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    Decanter, volume 20, that is.

    @mollymooly: In view of "cheesy", why is the pronunciation with a /z/ so unexpected?

    Some words for good white wine are "leesy"
    And "frothy" and "nutty" and "cheesy".
    They're so versatile,
    They apply to this style
    That's so easy it's making me queasy.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    @mollymooly: I think that intervocalic voicing is the general rule in English (or very common). So, /lizi/ would be expected.

  10. Steve Kass said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    "Taste of lees" has been around for a while, and there are various instances of "Tasting of lies" and "goût de lie(s)."

    What the French would use as an adjective – lieux? Searching for "lieux" in the context of winetasting may be hopeless, though.

  11. Steve Kass said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    Apologies for the funny typo (tasting of lies), but the link went to the right place.

  12. Mark F. said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    It's interesting to me that I naturally read 'leesy' as /lizi/, but 'Lisi' (the last name of surfer-physicist Garrett Lisi) as /lisi/. I have some intuition that the /i/ in 'leesy' is longer than the /i/ in 'Lisi', and that that length has something to do with wanting to vocalize the sibilant. But I had thought my dialect had no vowel length distinctions.

    Both glosses quoted in the post violate the norm that the part of speech of the (head of the) definition should match that of the word itself.

  13. Howard Oakley said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    I am uncertain of the semantics here, and fear that there is a little pseudo-science on the loose.
    "Leesy, cheesy" and references to bread, dough, and fermentation are quite different from 'autolysis'. Yeast metabolises to generate carbon dioxide, which is what makes bread dough rise, and what puts the fizz in a sparkling wine. Autolysis, which seems to have come into English use around the start of the 20th century, is better described as self-digestion, and Jackson's description above is more consistent with that.
    I was always told (and sometimes experienced at first mouth) that sediment in the bottle was a bad thing, and any significant quantity indicated a wine that had 'gone' – and in my limited experience of such defective bottles, that was obvious; any autolysis or (with obvious exceptions) further fermentation that occurred in the bottle thus usually spelled disaster, not some pleasant enhancement.
    I hope that you have a metric that indicates whether usage is consistent with meaning, rather than just because the word sounds nice.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Stats for explicit hits in Google Books (human-read to reject hits for the personal name Leesy):

    1980-1985: 1
    1985-1990: 4
    1990-1995: 10
    1995-2000: 12
    2000-2005: 15
    2005-2010: 19

    This steady rise comes from occurrences in books and journals such as Wine Enthusiast, Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, and Decanter – which presumably both reflected its use and propagated that use.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    @Steve Kass: I looked at a few sites that showed up in a search for "glossaire du vin", and the closest thing I found was "goût de lies", obviously a noun phrase.

    @Howard Oakley: On the other hand, all the sites said that taste could be desirable. According to Le lexique de la Vigne et du Vin, A l'inverse des grosses lies que le vigneron retire au moment du premier soutirage, les lies fines sont conservées pour les vins blancs afin de leur procurer plus de gras et de complexité. "In contrast to the coarse lees that the winemaker removes at the time of the first decanting, the fine lees are conserved for white wines to provide them with more 'fat' and complexity." (If I translated that all right.)

    @Mark F.: If only more people who write definitions knew about that norm!

  16. Bob Moore said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

    @Howard Oakley: Aging on the lees (resulting in a "leesy" aroma and flavor) has nothing to do with sediment in the bottle, because wines are always drained off the lees, and often clarified by "fining", prior to bottling. However, sediment in the bottle is definitely not a defect in wine in most cases. In fact, quite the opposite, especially with red wines. Red wines meant for long bottle aging almost always "throw" sediment, and should be decanted off the sediment before serving. This sediment is *not* the result of further fermentation in the bottle.

  17. Chris said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

    I performed a Google N-gram search on "leesy" and found an 1829 usage: "A pocket dictionary of the holy Bible – Page 342" Archibald Alexander – 1829 – Free Google eBook – Read LEES, the dregs of wins settled to the bottom; and so, wines on the leesy are wines strong and puri6ed, by the lees settling to the bottom, Isa. xv. 6. LEGION, a band of soldien in the Roman army, consisting of from 6 to 7000 men : the …

    More results here

    I was disappointed to discover that COHA had zero relevant results. There were 19 examples from one novel in 1969 of "Leesy" used as a proper name, and nothing else.

  18. John said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @h. s. gudnason: The word may be new-ish in English-language cookery (it's common among the science of cooking folks). The practice you describe isn't new. In English, the term 'sponge' is used to describe the partial mixing of a bread dough that is allowed to rest (sometimes overnight) before the rest of the flour is added. The autolysis and fermentation lead to more complex flavors in the finished bread.

  19. Keith Ivey said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    Chris, not surprisingly, since it's being used as a noun, the word in the 1829 book is actually "lees" (the OCR misrecognized a comma as a "y"). See here.

  20. blahedo said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    I'll add to @mollymooly's voice expressing an instinctive reading of "leesy" as /lisi/—albeit with some uncertainty—until I saw more context. I'm well aware of the general tendency for intervocalic 's' to be /z/, of course, and there are many examples, such as "cheesy" and "easy".

    I won't claim that my guess of /s/ here was particularly reasoned-out, because it was instinctive and took me some thinking to explain, but here's what I've come up with: words that end in "-sy" don't follow any particular rule for pronunciation of the 's', because they are by-and-large morphologically broken down as + , and the pronunciation of the 's' follows the pronunciation in the root word. Which, if it had been "leese", I would have gone with /lis/ as its pronunciation ("cheese" notwithstanding).

    At least, that's the best I can come up with on a few moments' thought. Knowing it was formed from a plural word "lees" did decisively shift my mental pronunciation to the /z/ form.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 5:24 am

    @blahedo: Can you think of many (any) /i-si/, /is-i/ or /isi/ words in English?

  22. Colin John said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    Greasy? (though I have heard /izi/ for that on occasion)

  23. GeorgeW said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 6:52 am

    @Colin John: Yeah, I say /grizi/, but I think I have heard /grisi/ as well.

  24. h.s. gudnason said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:07 am


    I know that using a sponge isn't new. But autolyse is different from a sponge. The yeast, flour, and water are mixed, then the sponge is added (if one is used), then the resting period (the autolyse) occurs. And I have no doubt that it's not a new process. What appears to be new is the use of the word (which seems at this stage always to be treated as a French word and either written in italics or used and then defined) in popular English-language cookbooks. (I've seen it in American and Australian books; it doesn't appear to be used in Elizabeth David's 1977 English Bread and Yeast Cookery.)

    I brought it up not to discuss baking techniques, but because it's a word that clearly defines a common technique, but which appears to have only recently migrated from scientific and foreign writing into popular (if mildly esoteric) use.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    Doesn't someone have to mention Virna Lisi, the unusually blonde Italian sexpot actress of the 'sixties?

  26. blahedo said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    Besides "greasy", I can think of "fleecy" (which presumably started as a productive use of -y but definitely is more than a nonce construction now) and assorted one-off constructions of the form _word ending in -se_ + _-y_ (which is what I meant to say above but made the mistake of using angle brackets, which thus got swallowed).

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    @blahedo: "Fleecy" and "Assisi" are the only rhymes with "greasy" at http://www.rhymezone.com, aside from extremely obscure ones (and one, "Medici", that I'd say was mispronounced).

    @GeorgeW: I can tell you're from the South (though you've mentioned it before, as I recall). RhymeZone doesn't even mention "greasy" as a rhyme for "easy", which may be a bit geographically biased of it, though I suppose it can't use every pronunciation.

  28. Bobbie said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    My old rhyming book (published in New York in 1936) has two /i-si/ rhymes: creasy and fleecy but NOT greasy! Greasy is listed as rhyming with breezy, cheesy, easy , sleazy, sneezy and wheezy (and Zambezi).

  29. GeorgeW said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: You're right, I am from the South (U.S.). I didn't realize that /grizi/ for 'greasy' was regional pronunciation. I guess once we start voicing, we just can't turn it off.

  30. Bobbie said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    I always thought that /grizi/ for 'greasy' was a US Southern pronunciation. But how can I reconcile this with my citation above that in 1936 the word rhymed with easy, breezy etc in a book published in New York City? ("The Complete Rhyming Dictionary and Poet's Craft Book", edited by Clement Wood. Published by Halcyon House, NY. )

  31. Ellen K. said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    Well, just because the publishing house was in New York City does not mean the person or people who put it together were.

RSS feed for comments on this post