Illustration by Alyssa Nassner
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.
Racking taking place at Avennia in Woodinville, WA / Courtesy Avennia
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.