An Introduction to Racking Wine

Assistant winemaker Bill Anton racks wines using Nitrogen.

There are a number of processes in winemaking, of which one is racking. The City Winery team has been busy racking wines this week, in order to make room for our 2011 harvest. We’ve been finalizing blends on our City Winery Reserve Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Santa Maria 2010 and City Winery New York City Cab 2010, as well as a number of member wines. So, this a perfect time for an introduction on racking.

What is Racking?

Racking is the process of siphoning wine off the lees to a new, clean barrel, or “carefully moving wine from one place to another,” in the words of City Winery assistant winemaker Bill Anton. Because wine is very temperamental, winemakers must be very careful when siphoning it from place to place. It is important to note that it is not pumped — that would be a harmful process, akin to what happens during “bottle shock,” a temporary condition after a wine has been bottled in which its fruit flavors are muted or disjointed.

Winemakers check wines every few weeks or up to about once per month to decide whether a wine should be racked or not. Frequency depends on the health of a wine. Anton explained that a wine that needs to be racked will have a certain “musty stinkiness” to it, an aroma that winemakers pick up on right away.

What is Lees?

Lees refers to deposits of dead or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate to the bottom of a tank of wine after fermentation and aging. Particles can be more easily precipitated to the bottom of a vat through a process called “fining,” where a fining agent (such as egg whites or bentonite clay) is added to the wine to create a bond with suspended particles. This creates larger molecules that settle more quickly.

There are two types of racking: that which happens before fermentation and that which happens after fermentation. The first time racking occurs is when the wine is merely juice and has just arrived at the winery — this is before it has fermented. In this case, the first batch of lees that settles is called “gross lees” — consisting mostly of fruit pulp, this lees is tested for its health. A healthy, creamy lees can be great for wines.

The second type of lees is “fine lees,” which consists mostly of dead yeast and is found after fermentation.

Lees can contribute positive or negative characteristics to a wine, depending on whether the lees are healthy or unhealthy. Healthy lees can add to a wine’s mid-palate, acting as a natural fining agent and imparting more flavor and color to a wine; when a wine has healthy lees, it doesn’t need to be racked. In such cases, this good lees is left alone and may even be transferred to another wine to share the wealth. The presence of unhealthy lees can lead to reduction, which is detected by the smell of sulfur, rotten eggs, onion or boiled cauliflower, depending on the level of reduction.

When lees has been removed from a wine at City Winery, we recycle it to the kitchen, where white lees is used to make pizza dough and red lees is used to make pretzels. Really dark lees can also be used to paint barrels.

When Does a Wine Need Racked?

A wine’s need for racking varies based on where it is in its life cycle.

Young wines that have not yet been fermented are usually racked when there is a need to decrease the yeast and bacteria count in the lees.

Otherwise, wines that have surpassed the fermentation process may require racking if they have reduced — that is to say that they have been prematurely deprived of oxygen — or are showing tight tannins.

Finally, wines are also racked as they are being prepared for bottling.

What Type of Equipment is Used?

The racking cane connects to the racking hose.

In order to rack a wine, an L-shaped racking cane (pictured above) is placed in a barrel. The cane features a screw-like mechanism at the bottom of the probe that is inserted into the barrel — this mechanism touches the bottom of the barrel and keeps the cane from pulling up lees.

The cane is connected to a racking hose, which transports the wine from the barrel to its destination, usually another barrel or a tank. At City Winery, we use 1.5″ racking hoses with tri-clover fittings for wine movement.

The racking process is a slow one, so that lees are not sucked into the cane. The cane features a site glass, which tells the operator when to stop siphoning — when he or she starts to see puffs of cloudiness (that is, lees), it’s time to stop.

The siphoning process can be powered in a number of ways, including by gravity, by a pump or using Nitrogen, which hooks on the cane and pressurizes the barrel, pushing wine to the hose.

How are Wines Blended?

Small batches of wine can be blended in a blending sump.

This week, City Winery is busy blending a number of wines. Usually wines are blended in barrels or tanks, but small batches of two barrels or less can also be blended in our blending sump (pictured above).

Do you have questions about racking wine? Let us know in the comments below!

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