Racking is the next step, after the initial more vigorous fermentation.
What is racking?
Simply put racking is siphoning your wine off of the dead yeast, known as lees, into a clean container.
Over time yeast and other sediment will precipitate out of your wine and settle to the bottom. The cloudiness will dissipate with each successive racking until you’ve got a nearly clear wine. Nearly because you do sometimes need to fine the last bit of cloudiness out.
Getting your wine off of the yeast as it decomposes can prevent off flavors. While some wines are aged on the yeast you really need to know what you’re doing to do this successfully.
When to Rack
Generally you want rack after the vigorous fermentation has completed. Initially fermentation produces great quantities of gas and is too much for many aging containers such as carboys or barrels.
Once this phase is over and much of the yeast has died you would then rack the wine off of the lees and let fermentation continue and its more subdued rate until complete. As sediment collects at the bottom you’ll rack again.
Some wine makers rack only once and others will rack four or five times depending upon the flavor profile they’re going for and how clear they want the wine. If, for instance, you’re going to be clearing your wine through fining you don’t have to rack the wine so many times to get it clear.
When Not to Rack
There are some wines that are aged on the lees and bottled without racking, a process known as sur lie aging. This french term simply means “on the lees”.
This process is used on namely Chardonnay, Champagne, and Muscadet. The lees can add nutty, toast, or even hazelnut flavors.
Chemically sur lie alters the oak flavor molecules and increases their integration with other molecules. This can tame oak flavors and make them taste like a part of the wine as opposed to an additive.
As mentioned earlier you need to know what you’re doing to pull this off. For your first time you might consider splitting your wine and only performing sur lie on a portion of it.
Taste your sur lie batch often and err on the side of caution when deciding to bottle. Bottle most of it when you are picking up the additional flavors you are looking for. With a small amount of wine let it sit on the lees and continue tasting to see how long it takes to pick up off flavors. This will give you a good guide line for sur lie wine making in the future.
The Light Lees Protocol
This “protocol” involves adding fresh yeast back into a completely fermented wine for a period of two to eight weeks. Doing this aids in the releases mannoproteins and poysaccharides into the wine, both of which alter the flavor and mouth feel of the finished product.
Light lees is also added to aid in malolactic fermentation.
1. Racking exposes wine to oxygen. Thus the more you rack the more oxygen you introduce into the wine. This is one reason many prefer to rack once or twice and use a fining agent to clear the wine instead of racking four or five times to clear it and risking all that oxygen exposure.
2. You will lose wine in the racking process. Because you don’t want to siphon the lees into your clean container some wine will be left behind. You will need a way to top off your clean containers after racking to minimize the surface area at the top of the container. You could use a previous vintage, commercial wine, or for small batches, sterilized marbles.
3. Research yeasts and grape varieties that do well in sur lie wines. This is a somewhat advanced wine making method. Be cautious and talk to experienced wine makers. You don’t want to ruin gallons and gallons of wine!
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Photo by Tim Patterson.