Definition - What does Lean mean?
Lean is a tasting term commonly used to describe wines that are high in acidity. It is a tasting term that applies to the mouthfeel, rather than the actual flavors of a wine. Due to their high acidity, lean wines tend to be sharper, causing the mouth to pucker when sipped. It is the opposite of “round" or “fleshy".
There is a positive and negative version of this tasting term. The positive term means that the wine is slim, streamlined and, while lacking the more well-rounded sensations, it is still enjoyable. The negative term means that the wine is lacking in balance, which comes from the fruit, making the acidity too sharp to be enjoyable.
WineFrog explains Lean
Most wine critics use lean as a negative term; they claim it means “high acidity, low flavor" (World Food Wine), or “lacking fruit but not acid" (Robinson). However, some winemakers create lean wines on purpose, attempting to showcase the good acidic qualities inherent in specific grape varietals. In this situation, “lean" is used as a compliment. It means that the wine is austere, with a sharp mouthfeel that cuts through the heavier flavors and sensations in the wine.
Lean can also refer to light-bodied wines. Austere wines – those with simple qualities rather than a combination of several different characteristics working together – are lean and delicious. These include the Loire's Samur and Bourgueil, which are lean, herbaceous reds; or Chablis's Chardonnays, which are lean and steely. In fact, most unoaked Chardonnays will be lean, because the acidity will be higher and leave a green-apple flavor in the mouth.
Lean is also often used to describe steely wines. Steely wines are high in acidity balanced by fruit and firmly structured. They leave that sharp, metallic feeling on the tongue, similar to what you feel when you accidentally eat tinfoil.
Finally, lean is sometimes used to describe a spicy finish, especially when the “spice" is caused by acidity, rather than actual spiciness. In this case, the term has a negative connotation, because it means that the finish is lacking the necessary balance to create a memorable end to the wine.
Lean wines make great pairings for fattier foods or dishes heavy in cream – the acidity will cleanse the palate and lift the quality of the dish and wine.