Welcome to the World of Winemaking! I’m having fun alphabetizing the home winemaking process – you can find the links to the other letters at the end of this post.
Today’s letter is “R”, so we’ll talk about Racking and Riddling.
What is racking? The process is quite straight forward. Wine from one carboy above another is siphoned though a hose to the empty vessel below, with great care taken to stop/pull the hose before any of the sediment/lees is transferred to the new vessel.
There are two pretty important reasons to rack a wine in progress. The first is stabilization – if you leave the wine too long on the sediment/lees, it can lead to the formation of off flavors. Nobody wants their wine to end up with a rotten egg smell – which is indicative of hydrogen sulfide.
The second reason to rack wine is for clarification – by the time a wine is ready to be bottled, a clear and relatively bright wine is generally desired. From an aesthetic viewpoint, you don’t want a murky product with particles floating throughout the bottle, right?
This is what’s left in the bucket after the first racking:
And this is what’s left after the second racking:
This is the view looking down the neck of the original carboy from the secondary fermentation. Lots of dead yeast cells as well as pulp and insoluble tartrates that collect and are deposited during the vinification of the aging process.
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, hence the reason the initial fermentation takes place in a large bucket, then second (and subsequent) fermentation(s) takes place in a carboy (as above).
Once this phase is over and much of the yeast has died you would then rack the wine off of the sediment/lees and let fermentation continue and its more subdued rate until complete. As sediment collects at the bottom, you’ll rack again. And again. And again.
Some winemakers rack only once or twice, 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 using something to clear your wine (with some sort of fining agents) you don’t have to rack the wine so many times to get it clear.
My preference is to rack as many times as I need to until all the sediment is left behind, then I’ll let the wine bulk age in the carboy undisturbed for a minimum of 6 months to a year before bottling. Like I’ve mentioned before, patience is needed in winemaking!
Riddle me this… I kid, I kid! Riddling is also known as “Rémuage” in French, part of the Méthode Champenoise process whereby bottles of sparkling wine are successively turned and gradually tilted upside down so that sediment settles into the necks of the bottles in preparation for degorgement.
Interesting story – Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot objected to the often cloudy appearance of Champagnes of the early 1800s. Upon her husband’s untimely death, the young widow became head of Champagne Clicquot. Determined to improve the appearance of her product, she found that shaking the bottles loosed sediment stuck to their sides.
The sediment would eventually settle to the bottom, if the bottles were left upright. To get the deposits closer to the neck, she used gravity, cutting holes in her kitchen table to place the bottles upside down. In 1810, she employed Anton Muller to improve and refine the process that came to be called riddling.
Instead of using remodeled kitchen tables, bottles are placed at a forty-five degree angle, necks-down, in specially built “A-frame” racks, called pupitres, or in modern times, a ‘riddling rack’. A worker grabs the bottom of each bottle, giving it a small shake, an abrupt back and forth twist, and while slightly increasing the tilt, drops it back in the rack. This action recurs every one to three days over a period of several weeks.
The shaking and twist is intended dislodge particles that have clung to the glass and prevent the sediments from caking in one spot; the tilt and drop encourage the particles, assisted by gravity, to move ever more downward; the time in between riddlings allows the particles to settle out of solution again.
When riddling is finished, the sediment collected in the bottle neck is frozen to form a “plug” which the next step in the process removes (dégorgement or “disgorging”). After adjusting the level of fill and setting the sweetness (with dosage), then all that’s left is to cork them with champagne corks, secure the famous wires and foil, and then let it ‘rest’ for a time (not necessarily age, but that’s always good, too) and enjoy!
I really want to get or make a riddling rack like this one:
Isn’t that cool? It’s not only a cool conversation piece of decor, but it’s functional, too. Back in 2011 I started a batch of champagne – got it all the way to the bottle fermentation (where the bubbles form in the bottle) and sealed the bottles with bidules:
And crown caps:
I was had fun with the riddling process, utilizing the boxes that the bottles came in (since I didn’t have a riddling rack), with them upside down – every few days I’d twist, shake, and drop them back in, allowing the sediment to collect in the bidule in the neck.
The bidules were to make the dégorgement easier – when you freeze the neck of the bottle, the sediment would freeze in and attach to the bidules, then when you pop off the crown cap, the frozen sediment would shoot out with the bidule. Pretty cool, no?
Unfortunately, our move to Washington State came up too quickly, and I hadn’t had a chance to dégorge the bottles, so I gave them to a fellow winemaker to finish. I never did hear how it turned out! Guess I’m just going to have to make another batch!
Winemaking is so much fun – at least for me – and am tickled every time I give the wine I make as gifts to friends and family who love drinking it as much as I love making it. While we go through this alphabetical series on winemaking, if you have any burning questions, be sure to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll reply there – and maybe even highlight your specific question(s) in a future post!
Thanks for joining me in this fun adventure!
Here are the links going backwards for your convenience, in case you missed any:
A for Aromas, Acidity and Appearance
B for Barrels, Bottles and Blackberry Wine
C for Color, Clarity, Carboys and Cherry Wine
D for Decanting and Decanters
E for Equipment
F for Fermentation
G for Glass and Grape
H for Harvest
I for Infusion
J for Jeroboam and Jug
K for Kabinett
L for Leaf, Label and Lees
M for Merlot, Muscat and Must
N – the Nose has it!
O for Oak and Oxidation
P for Palate and Press
Q for Quality