A Crash Course on Racking

Taylor Munks here, Epoch Estate Wines Lab & Cellar Tech.  In the last couple of weeks Jordan, Zak, and I have been a bunch of busy bees, getting ready for our first round of red bottling at the end of May.  It’s a pretty busy time for us, as we finalize about half of our red blends and get them into tank.  We thought you might be interested in taking a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, to see what one big chunk of bottling preparation looks like with a process called racking.

 

So here it is, Racking 101!

 

You may have heard the term thrown around casually by winemakers you have spoken with over the years.  You may have scrolled through Instagram at certain times of the year only to see a picture of a barrel with a metal tube or hoses coming out of the top with a caption about racking.  But what is racking and why do we do it at Epoch?

 

To answer these questions, I’ll need to share a little bit more about the winemaking process.  So bear with me, it’ll be worth it, I promise.

 

After primary (alcoholic) fermentation takes place, we remove the wine from the vessel it was fermented in, press a little extra juice from the remaining grape solids, and place it in barrels where it can go through its malolactic conversion and age for another year to year and a half.  As the wine is pulled from its fermentation vessel and barrels are filled, there are still millions of yeast cells floating around trying to find and consume any trace amounts of residual sugar to complete their job.  As those yeast cells die off, they sink to the bottom of the barrel and form a dense layer of sediment called lees.  However, it’s not just lees that make up the layer of sediment.  After pressing, the wine also contains microscopic grape particles that will settle out over time to join the lees.  Throughout the aging process, we perform regular bâtonnage, scraping the bottom of the barrel to mix the lees back into suspension and allow them to precipitate out again.  Aging wine on the lees, or Sur Lie aging, can be quite beneficial as we’ve noticed the resulting wine tends to have a softer mouthfeel, more complexity, and it can bolster the body.

 

So, how do we bottle the wine but leave the lees behind?  By racking, of course!

 

Racking serves two main purposes for us.  First, it allows us to take wine from several different vessels and combine them into one large tank, so all of the different new or neutral barrel characteristics and the pure concrete expressions can homogenize before bottling.  Second, by pulling a siphon and holding it just above the sediment at the bottom of the vessel, we can take the clean wine while leaving the layer of lees behind.  Pictured below is a racking wand, which we use on all of our different barrel components.

A racking wand.

A closer look at it reveals two key features.  One, the adjustable rod running through the center and protruding through the bottom, which rests in the layer of lees at the bottom of the barrel, allows us to alter the depth of the siphon to rest just above the sediment.  The second feature is the sight glass, attached to the top left of the racking wand; this lets us visually inspect the wine coming out of the barrel to ensure that we are not pulling up any lees with the clean wine.

 

The following series of photos demonstrates racking in action.  The first two photos show our assistant winemaker, Zak Motherwell, keeping his legendary forklifting skills sharp while raising barrels above the tank we are planning to fill.  This placement is very important because after we get the siphon going, we want to let gravity take over to move the remainder of the wine from the barrel to the tank.

A forklift lifting a barrel.

Barrels draining into a tank.

Next, our lab and cellar tech, Taylor Munks (that’s me), places the racking wand into a barrel, pulls a siphon, and then adjusts the level of the siphon.  Notice the hose coming off of the racking wand that makes its way to the large tank that Zak is leaning over?  That hose is long enough to reach the bottom of the tank; it not only prevents splashing, but once the wine is flowing, it allows gravity to take over and keeps the siphon going.

Taylor placing the racking wand into a barrel.

Taylor creating suction necessary for the siphon to do its job.

Once the barrels are empty, we pressure wash them inside and out before moving on to the next wine.

Pressure washing barrels.

Some of you might remember that oak is not the only medium we use to age our wines.  We also have an arsenal of concrete eggs and tulips that we often use for our White, Sensibility, and Veracity.  Racking out of our concrete tanks is pretty similar to racking out of barrels.  The principle remains constant: take the clean wine and leave the lees behind.  There are just a few differences in our procedure.  First, because the tank is so much larger than a barrel, 580 gallons vs 70 gallons, we maintain a constant flow of argon to blanket the surface of the wine and protect it against the ravages of oxygen.  Second, the racking wand we use for our concrete tanks is substantially larger than the one we use for barrels.  Finally, because our concrete tanks aren’t entirely portable, we rack into a tank that is portable, which we can then add to the tank containing the barrel components.

 

The final two pictures reveal a look into one of our concrete tulips during the racking process.  Looking closely at the final photo, you can see the halo of purple lees encroaching on our clean wine as we pull the last few gallons from this tank.

 

A look inside a tulip!

The halo of lees around the small amount of clean wine left inside.