Racking is the process of transferring wine from one vessel to another, such as from tank to barrel. There are two main reasons why winemakers rack their wines.
The first is to remove sediment. An initial racking is done typically after malolactic fermentation is complete, to separate the wine from what is referred to as gross lees. These are dead yeast cells and other solids leftover from fermentation that settle over time.
“You’ll have a lot of solids down at the bottom of the barrel, and you can start to get this kind of yogurty or leesy taste,” says Chris Peterson, partner and winemaker at Avennia in Woodinville, Washington. After the first racking, winemakers might then rack additional times to remove what is referred to as fine lees.
“Those things are lending flavor and texture to the wine, but also possibly reducing focus or detail,” says Peterson.
The second reason to rack is to provide oxygen to the wine. This impacts its maturation process.
“I very much use racking as a tannin management and a textural evolution tool,” says Chris Figgins, president of Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla, Washington. “It definitely helps stretch the tannin chains out.”
Giving wine oxygen can also get rid of reductive aromas. These unwanted aromas, often perceived as rotten eggs or tire rubber, can occur in the absence of oxygen. If winemakers want to retain lees to impart texture but remediate reduction, they can stir the lees so they become suspended in the wine before racking.
To rack, winemakers typically insert a stainless steel, wand-shaped device into the barrel. A friction-free pump, or in some cases gravity, is used to siphon the wine out. Winemakers then use a sight glass to observe and halt the process when the siphon starts to pull up sediment. From there, the wine goes via a hose to a tank. The whole process takes about six minutes for a 225-liter barrel.
After the wine is removed, the barrel is cleaned. Then, assuming the wine isn’t to be bottled immediately, the process happens in reverse. This is where technique plays a part. If the winemaker wants the wine to receive more oxygen, they can place the wand at the top of the barrel so there’s a splashing, aerating effect. If they want it to receive less, they can fill from the bottom.
Process is important too. Some winemakers perform what is called a “rack and return,” where each individual barrel is siphoned out to a tank and then put back into the exact same barrel before moving on to the next.
“It’s a much more labor-intensive process, but our goal is to keep [the barrels] as separate as possible for as long as possible,” says Charlie Lybecker, owner and winemaker at Cairdeas Winery in Chelan, Washington. “It gives us more options when we go to blend later.” Others might take all barrels of a certain wine and put them together into a blending tank before returning them to barrel.
How often winemakers rack varies. In general, the more tannic a grape variety, vineyard or vintage, the more times a wine might be racked. Some may rack their wines only once after malolactic fermentation is complete and then again just before bottling. Others might do it every quarter. The overall goal of the wine is also a consideration.
“If you’re trying to create a wine that’s more approachable early, you might rack more,” says Lybecker. “If you’re making more ageworthy wines that people are going to cellar for a long time, you’d rack less.”
Overall, each of these decisions will impact what ends up in your glass. “It’s a pretty important tool,” says Figgins. “It has a lot of ramifications in the final wine.”