Wine racking is not really about putting your wine collection into a nice rack you just bought. It is a process of moving wine from one vessel to another. And is something all wines need to go through.
Winemaking is an art form, from the grapes in the vineyard to the final product – wine. There is more to it than just harvesting, pressing, and bottling wine. An important step of winemaking is also racking wine by moving it from one container to another. Wine racking separates the wine from the residue particles.
There are many reasons to rack wine, the main one is to remove sediment left after fermentation. It is an essential process that defines the qualities of the wine, it makes it clear, and enhances the flavor.
Even though wine racking is an essential part of the winemaking process, there is still some confusion about what is it and how to do it. If you are just a beginner in winemaking or want to know more about the procedure, we prepared a little guide on how to properly rack wine before putting it in the bottle.
What is wine racking?
Wine racking is the process of transporting wine from one vessel to another, for example from tank to barrel. The main goal is to siphon the wine into another container, so you separate all the sediment from it. The leftover sediment is then left behind in the previous tank or barrel.
Leaving the sediment behind is one of the main goals of racking. Part of the winemaking process is fermentation and in this process, sediment builds up, for example, dead yeast cells and other solid parts from grapes.
If you leave the sediment in, the wine won’t taste how it is supposed to. It is normal that during the fermentation process yeast multiplies and later dies off. The dead cells then sink at the bottom of the barrel. With other particles from the fruit, this becomes a lee layer. If you don’t separate it, the wine can have a more yogurty or rubbery taste.
The first racking is the most important, but winemakers might do it a couple more times since there are still some small particles called fine lees left in the wine after the first racking. These leftover particles do affect the taste and texture of the wine, so every winemaker can decide if they want to leave the loose lees in the final product or not.
How many times a wine is racked also influences the clarity of the wine. The more particles you remove, the clearer the wine.
Another important part of racking is to oxygenate the wine. When you add oxygen to the wine you can get rid of undesirable aromas, for example after tire rubber. But you have to be careful to not add too much.
Is racking wine necessary?
Racking wine is necessary if you want to prevent off flavors in the wine, which can result because of the gross lees. It is basically a wine filtration.
Gross lees mostly consist of dead yeast cells, there are also some other particles from the grape that were left in the wine. This is a normal part of winemaking. Normally yeast is put into grape juice or must at the beginning of fermentation. Active yeast, which converts the sugar into alcohol, then multiplies and later on dies off and becomes the sediment at the bottom of the tank or a barrel.
If you leave the yeast in the vessel too long after all the sugar is transformed into alcohol, the cells will start to feed on the dead yeast cells. The effects of this process can then give the wine the off-flavor.
Racking is also necessary if you want your wine to be clear. If you leave the sediment in the wine, you will eventually get a hazy layer at the bottom and a clear one on the top.
But there are also other risks. You have to be careful so you don’t rack your wine too often. This can represent a risk that the wine will be exposed to oxygen too many times which also affects the aromas and turn the wine vinegary.
How to properly rack wine?
During the winemaking process, wine must be racked on several occasions before you store it.
The first racking normally happens about a week after adding the active yeast. After this period the primary fermentation slows down and most of the sediment has formed.
This is also the time you separate the pulp particles, for example, the grape skin, from the wine. With white wine, the first racking can be done after pressing the grapes.
With the second racking, you usually remove the fine lees. When making red wine it is best to wait for the end of the secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation. This fermentation turns the sharp acid in the wine into mellow lactic acid.
With white wine it is recommended to wait until the end of the primary fermentation, the malolactic fermentation is optional.
After this racking, it is recommended to add stabilizers, for example, sulfites.
The third and often final racking is done before bottling and helps remove any remaining sediment.
Sometimes additional racking is done. This is the decision of the winemaker. Normally other rackings are done with aging heavy red wine typically in a barrel, where it is recommended to rack it every few months. With aging wine in a barrel, it’s normal that some residue builds up and by racking the wine you also make sure the aging process is going as planned.
The mechanical process of racking is done easily with a siphon, the hard part is to do it without stirring up the lees. You can use a plastic hose for the racking process, but because it moves around it can stir up the residue. Most winemakers use a racking hose and a racking cane that is specially designed to not stir up the sediment. It is also recommended that you use a gravity pump.