Winemaking is an erratic hobby. There is a lot of action at the beginning of the process: crushing, fermenting, pressing; and a lot of action at the end of the process: bottling, labeling, drinking (the best part). In the middle, however, not a lot happens. Since the wine has to age, we spend a lot of time sitting around, not doing much. If you’re the sort that likes action-packed hobbies, it’s a little like watching paint dry. We don’t mind, but I do think we probably look a little silly, sitting in the basement in the dark, staring longingly at big glass jugs. Except now we’re not in our basement, we’re over at Nick and Sara’s house, which we’re sure they really enjoy*.
During the watching and waiting period, action is required a handful of times, and we jump at the chance to be productive again. Last week was one of those times.
It’s been about six weeks since we pressed our red, separating the juice from the pulp, skins, and seeds of the grapes. After pressing, there is still a lot of particulate matter suspended in the wine, in the form of leftover grape pulp, yeast cells, and spent malolactic bacteria. While we’ve been sitting around in our new corporate apartment, gravity has allowed much of that particulate to settle on the bottom of the carboys. This creates a thick sludge called the gross lees. The first large amount of particulate that forms is called the gross lees. Particulate that continues to settle over the next few months is called the fine lees.
Once the gross lees has formed in the bottom of the carboy, it’s important to separate it from the wine. This is because the sludge can begin to break down and decompose, introducing off-flavors. We separate the wine from the gross lees through a process called racking.
Racking is the process we went through last week. We carefully siphon the clear wine out of the top of the carboy into a new, clean carboy while leaving the remaining sludge behind.
We lose some volume during racking, so we have to size down into smaller carboys. This is because the carboys must always remain completely full to minimize oxidation. After last week’s racking, we went from 21 gallons of liquid and gross lees to 18 and a half gallons of clarified red wine. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), we only had enough carboys to hold 18 gallons. Nick and I were forced** to drink the leftover half-gallon of wine. We also gave each new carboy of finished wine a dose of potassium metabisulfite (previously discussed here) to prevent oxidation, spoilage, and color loss.
So, how’s the red wine doing? Through the 18 months from start to finish, red wine goes through several mood changes (technical term). At the moment, I would describe it as being in its awkward adolescent period. It has some difficult flavors and aromas that are likely a result of the end of fermentation, contact with the gross lees, or perhaps not being asked to prom.
We have watched our wine struggle through this phase in all previous years. In our experience, the flavors and aromas will clarify within the next few months, so I have every reason to believe they will this year too. On a positive note, the color of the wine is fantastic! It’s easily the richest, darkest ruby-purple color we’ve ever achieved. We are one step closet to attaining one of our major goals for 2012.
And how is the white wine, you ask? Well, we’ve been waiting for winter to arrive so we can begin a process called cold stabilization. Wine contains a large amount of tartaric acid, which at low temperatures can form crystals that settle in the wine. We want to avoid those crystals forming in the bottles, so we need to encourage them to form in the carboys. We can then separate the clear wine from the tartaric crystals. To encourage crystal formation, we need to chill the wine down below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a week. If we had a big, unused refrigerator, we could just park the wine in there. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything big enough to hold our carboys, so it’s up to Mother Nature. We’re watching the weather for a particularly cold week (with no rain) when we can leave the carboy outside and allow it to chill. Much like with our insurance paperwork, and our red wine…again…we are watching and waiting. It’s the name of the game right now.
*Sorry! We love you guys! Thanks for continuing to humor us and provide shelter and care for 22 gallons of wine.
**Editor’s note: It’s me, Caitlin. This was news to me! I wondered why Robert was out so late. And I really shouldn’t have bought his story that his teeth were purple because he had eaten so many purple Skittles®. He doesn’t even like Skittles.