Racking is an integral and sadly unavoidably part of making wine. I finds it’s not called racking for nothing as it is… nerve wracking… I absolutely hate it.
The idea is simple you transfer from one demijohn to another to leave the lees behind. Lees is the fruit pulp and now exhausted yeast that settles over time and as this gunk settles it can become a nice habitat for possible spoilage microbes so its best left removed periodically.
As a home wine maker choosing when to rack is more an art than science. Last year I was racking for the first time at four weeks religiously and leaving the next racks in the wines life at two then three months after each. This year I have been leaving it a little longer for the initial rack. The elderberry wine and elder and black have had an extra week to that already extra time as Mr Gazette Sr had a week away from the North East in That London with me. There was no way I was going to ask a him to help! All this extra time seems to have been beneficial as the lees was nicely compacted at the bottom allowing more to be left behind with very little stirred up by the auto-syphon. It also meant that more wine was transferred to the new demijohn too!
I use an auto syphon to rack which relies on gravity to push the wine from the top demijohn into the new target demijohn placed lower. Imagine Telly Savalas in Battle Of The Bulge when he syphons petrol from a jeep into a jerry-can. I start the target demi fairly high on a stool to allow the tube to be secure and once the wine is pouring through carefully drop it onto the floor to get a good drop and quick transfer.
As the wine splashes into the new demijohn it also allows “splash back” to happen. this allows a little oxygen to be dissolved which binds with the carbonic acid creating carbon dioxide that will bubble away over the coming months. There are many myths in home wine making and one is that oxygen instantly and irrecoverably ruins wine which is bit of an over statement. All wine oxidises slightly, it is harmful in excess only. A decent rule of thumb is to allow white wines to pour down the glass sides of the demijohn and a red wine to splash straight in. This is because a white wine can more easily oxidise as it is more acidic and volatile.
Once the racking stops with a satisfying “glug-glug” sound a quick top of pre boiled and now cooled water tops the wine up to the neck. This is to allow as little surface area exposed to air as possible. A bung and air lock completes the rack. Another myth is that a water top up in some how heresy for home wine makers; all country/fruit wines use water as an ingredient unlike grape wines that rely only on the grape. Recipes take topping up into account when macerating and pressing fruit at the start of the wine making process. That is not to say you HAVE to top up with water, some top up with steralised glass marbles to remove the head space and others add a similar tasting wine. It’s your wine and recipe do what feels right for you!
Just because the wine is racked does not mean your work is done. The lees left behind has to be cleaned away to stop it contaminating your kit and demijohn. You also have some left behind to give a rough estimate of taste and progress, just take a sip rather than a mouthful as too much yeast ingested can give a bad case of the squity-wits. Although crude you can look for the tannin, acid and sulphur level.
My Elderberry tastes like a rough but decent wine, far better than last year and it has at least 5 months in bulk ageing and then another 6 months absolute minimum in the bottle. The Elder and Black was noticeably lighter in colour and taste but the yeast was less willing to settle to give a true indication. This is just a natural consequence of the Lalvin RC212 yeast I used behaving differently, in the elderberry wine seemingly creating clumped colonies of yeast and in the Elder and Black being more dispersed and willing to float about when agitated.
I have another two months to wait to rack again, at this state I plan to add some lighly toasted oak chips that will sit with it for 3 months giving a barrel aged taste – it did wonders for the blueberry!