Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rackin' in the Free World

Mid November, and the winery crew is able to make it home for dinner, no sweat, every night, and take a bit of a break on weekends to boot. If I look back at the careful cellar records we keep for each wine we make, nicely done up in a binder specific to that year, I see that this has not always been so. Just a few years ago we were still pressing out a few bins of Cab franc in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and yes, the snow was flying at the time.

The fruit flies I’ve written so fondly about in previous posts (did you know that fruit flies and people share 60% of their genes?) are doing their Custer’s Last Stand thing right now. Their redoubt in this case is not a bleak spot in the hills of Montana, but the winery lab; and they seem to know the game is up. 

This week is a big one for racking. I should probably define that term here, and perhaps the best way to do that is to scroll through the Wiktionary entries on the verb ‘to rack’. We have:
  1. To Place in or hang on a rack
    • Well, we do place our jackets on a rack most mornings, but that's not the definition we're after.
  2. (billiards, snooker, pool) To put the balls into the triangular rack and set them in place on the table.
    • Sometimes we joke about getting a pool table up here, but that has yet to happen.  Nope.
  3. (slang) To strike a male in the groin with the knee.
    • Not gonna go there.  I have been 'racked' once or twice in my life, but I didn't enjoy it enough to learn that there was actually a term for it.
  4. To stretch the joints of a person.
    • I racked my brains trying to make this definition fit anything wine-related, and came up empty.
  5. To fly, as vapor or broken clouds.
    • Obscure!  Maybe someone had kneed the clouds in the groin.  Fly away, little broken clouds!
  6. (brewing) To clarify, and thereby deter further fermentation of, beer, wine or cider by draining or siphoning it from the dregs.

At last! Here’s the definition we’re looking for, though in miserable sixth place, dictionary-wise. Our collective ego is bruised: Is what we do really less important than broken clouds? And what’s with calling lees ‘dregs’? 

Anyway, picture a shiny tank of wine. Riesling inside. It has finished fermentation, and the yeasts – those beautiful microbes that do our bidding every fall (know what? we share a bunch of genes with them, too) are either still in suspension or sitting in a thick layer at the bottom of the tank. 

It’s the ones at the bottom, the so-called heavy lees, that it’s time to say adios to. Here they are, in a picture taken moments before they were unceremoniously sluiced down the drain:

The sediment in a tank of wine at this time of year is composed mostly of dead or dying yeast cells.
Their brethren and sistern, the light lees that are still in suspension, are not just pesky non-team-players in the wine clarification game. In fact, we want them there for a few more months, yea though they make the wine cloudy and gross looking. Some winemakers employ these dead and dying yeast cells to gradually add a little mouthfeel to their wines, in a process called autolysis. Others take advantage of their ability to scavenge oxygen from the wine, a really very useful talent if you think of a wine’s aging trajectory as being progressively more oxygen-averse.

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Pearl Jam, covering Neil Young's Rockin' In The Free World at Pink Pop 92:

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

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