I try to have my posts follow what it going on at the winery, in the vineyards, even California as a whole, which usually works out pretty well- except now that I have passed my one year anniversary, I run the risk of redundancy. This week, we are doing our first bottling of the year, and being that I have already covered bottling, way, way back, I had to rack my brain for another topic. Hmm, rack my brain… I just had to see what we were doing the week before when I was talking viruses and voila- we were doing “rack and returns”. Pretty convenient, huh?
So what do I mean by rack and returns? A rack and return is basically a decanting of wine on a very large scale. We transfer the wine from barrel to tank and then back to barrel, taking every precaution possible to ensure that we leave all of the sediment on the bottom of the barrels. Once we have removed the wine from the barrels, we discard the lees
(that yummy-looking gook on the bottom of the barrels made up primarily of dead yeast cells) rinse the barrels of any remaining lees and tartrate crystals, and steam the barrels seven minutes to take care of any malingering bacteria or yeast, and bonus- no harsh chemicals involved. The barrels are then allowed to dry overnight. We flip them over the following morning and smell each barrel- if they smell like a toasted oak barrel, we are good to go, if it smells as if the barrels have run a couple of laps around the vineyard during the night, then it’s time for another bath.
There are a few reasons why we do rack and returns: decanting (already mentioned this), cleaning the barrels (that one too), aeration (getting to it) and homogenization or blending (I’m on it). As for the blending, while the barrels are drying, the winemaker tastes through the blended lot in tank, performs necessary analysis (free SO2, pH, and volatile acidity) and at that point determines whether we return the wine to the same barrels or change up the cooperage to enhance the wine. As for aeration, the wine is automatically aerated through the process of racking. This is helpful for blowing off some of the fermentative aromas, particularly in the current vintage as well as helping to stabilize the wine.
This current round of rack and returns will take 3-4 weeks to complete. The whole process occurs anywhere from two to eight times over a wine’s life in barrel, this being determined by the harvest, varietal, and program the wine is designated for. So with this much-needed super-soaking we’ve received over the last few days, all I can say is “Rack On Man!”