The beautiful rolling hills of vineyards, always looking so enchanting. The wine business can look charming but there is a lot more that goes into making vines turn grapes into that great tasting liquid that grows ever more popular. To end up with that great looking glass of wine requires quite a bit of work. One of the usually unseen deeds that go unnoticed, except by those working in a winery, is the racking of the wine.
I knew a little bit about this before I ever moved into Paso Robles wine country. Being a homebrewer for two decades, when I first was introduced to beer-making, there were three rules: clean, clean and clean. I would transfer my five gallon wort (beer) into a carboy, to rinse the yeast cake or trub (sediment) from the bottom of the vessel, so that it can clear itself and maybe mature a little more before bottling. Making wine and racking is essentially the same thing.
After primary and secondary fermentation, wine sits in a oak barrel for a few weeks and then is racked – not all winemakers do this. However, almost certainly, some months later, vintners like to rack the wine. Vintners have different philosophies for how often but consider anywhere from three to six months, or maybe even longer. Figure a wine gets racked at least two or three times during its life in a barrel. Wines need rest and the less disruptions, the better.
When racking, it simply is moving the wine from one barrel into another – maybe a neutral barrel – to clear the wine after it settles. A racking cane is inserted into the oak wine barrel and placed right at the bottom, trying not to retain sediment. What is called off flavors created by lees can be imparted into the wine if not racked. Lees is the sediment, which mostly is yeast that’s left behind. It needs to be cleaned out, then that barrel can be reused again and even have the original wine transferred back in that same barrel. By the way, lees can be reused into making dough.
That’s what a neutral barrel can be used for. Neutral barrels are vessels that have been used to the point that they no longer are imparting any flavors into the wine, and therefore after being cleaned, are temporary containers used for racking purposes. Note sometimes, in bigger wineries, the barrels are emptied into steel vats before transferring back into the now cleaned barrels.
Having done this process a time or two, I can tell you it’s difficult work. Gravity-aided siphoning isn’t so hard, but to clean a barrel once it has been emptied isn’t necessarily fun. Typically, the barrels are rinsed initially with water and then cleaned with citric acid. There are barrel washing tools that blast the inside to help clean and then rinse the cleaning agents out – and likely more than once. Both hot and cold water may be used.
You’re probably wondering what happens after racking, because a certain amount of space inside the wine barrel is now open due to some of the product having been cleaned out. The wine barrel needs to be full, so the extra area is filled with top off wine – something I talked about earlier this year.
Wineries try not to splash the wine because they don’t want to aerate it; but, racking in the end is a much needed process in winemaking with the biggest result offering a wine that is clean with the debris left behind.
This time of year, with harvest already underway in some vineyards, racking is occurring with wine ready for bottling, being emptied and those barrels to be cleaned for the next vintage.
Not all of winemaking is glamorous, but here’s to racking, which helps produce a clean and sometimes clearer wine – the end result of all that behind the scenes hard work in the winery.
Daryle W. Hier
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