Racking is the next step, after the initial more vigorous fermentation.

What is racking?

Simply put racking is siphoning your wine off of the dead yeast, known as lees, into a clean container.

Racking wine off the lees involves siphoning from the primary fermenter to a secondary fermentation container.There are two reasons to rack your wine. First it helps clarify your wine but it can also prevent off flavors from the decomposing yeast.

Over time yeast and other sediment will precipitate out of your wine and settle to the bottom. The cloudiness will dissipate with each successive racking until you’ve got a nearly clear wine. Nearly because you do sometimes need to fine the last bit of cloudiness out.

Getting your wine off of the yeast as it decomposes can prevent off flavors. While some wines are aged on the yeast you really need to know what you’re doing to do this successfully.

When to Rack

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.

Once this phase is over and much of the yeast has died you would then rack the wine off of the lees and let fermentation continue and its more subdued rate until complete. As sediment collects at the bottom you’ll rack again.

Some wine makers rack only once 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 clearing your wine through fining you don’t have to rack the wine so many times to get it clear.

When Not to Rack

There are some wines that are aged on the lees and bottled without racking, a process known as sur lie aging. This french term simply means “on the lees”.

This process is used on namely Chardonnay, Champagne, and Muscadet. The lees can add nutty, toast, or even hazelnut flavors.

Chemically sur lie alters the oak flavor molecules and increases their integration with other molecules. This can tame oak flavors and make them taste like a part of the wine as opposed to an additive.

As mentioned earlier you need to know what you’re doing to pull this off. For your first time you might consider splitting your wine and only performing sur lie on a portion of it.

Taste your sur lie batch often and err on the side of caution when deciding to bottle. Bottle most of it when you are picking up the additional flavors you are looking for. With a small amount of wine let it sit on the lees and continue tasting to see how long it takes to pick up off flavors. This will give you a good guide line for sur lie wine making in the future.

The Light Lees Protocol

This “protocol” involves adding fresh yeast back into a completely fermented wine for a period of two to eight weeks. Doing this aids in the releases mannoproteins and poysaccharides into the wine, both of which alter the flavor and mouth feel of the finished product.

Light lees is also added to aid in malolactic fermentation.

Racking Considerations

1. Racking exposes wine to oxygen. Thus the more you rack the more oxygen you introduce into the wine. This is one reason many prefer to rack once or twice and use a fining agent to clear the wine instead of racking four or five times to clear it and risking all that oxygen exposure.

2. You will lose wine in the racking process. Because you don’t want to siphon the lees into your clean container some wine will be left behind. You will need a way to top off your clean containers after racking to minimize the surface area at the top of the container. You could use a previous vintage, commercial wine, or for small batches, sterilized marbles.

3. Research yeasts and grape varieties that do well in sur lie wines. This is a somewhat advanced wine making method. Be cautious and talk to experienced wine makers. You don’t want to ruin gallons and gallons of wine!

Click here to go back to theĀ wine making process.

Photo by Tim Patterson.

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  • LouHawk

    First timer here doing Savignon Blanc from kit. I have a GIGANTIC amount of CO2. 1st rack from bucket into carboy and bubbling like crazy. How long should I let that bubble before next racking. I added oak chips as directed.

    • Hi Lou!

      If you’ve just racked from your primary fermenter to the carboy you should still be in the middle of fermentation so the huge amount of CO2 is okay. During primary fermentation about 70% of the sugars are converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Primary fermentation usually lasts about 7 days with most kits.

      After those first 7 days or so you rack into a secondary fermentation container, in this case a carboy, where the last 30% of sugars are fermented. This stage usually lasts 14 days or so.

      One factor that can drastically affect the amount of CO2 in your wine is temperature. Ideally your wine should be between 72 and 75 degrees for most kits. Any cooler than this and your wine will tend to hold on to carbon dioxide.

      If your kit didn’t come with very good directions let me know and I’ll see what I can put together for you.

      Cheers!

      Matt

  • Skip O’Neill

    I just started the primary fermentation with a Sangiovese wine kit and now have to leave town for a couple of weeks. Is letting the primary go for 17 days too long? I won’t be back from the trip and it would have been 17 days from the beginning of primary fermentation until I can rack to the secondary.

    Thanks again for your insight and help.

    • Hi Skip,

      I don’t think 17 days will be too long. If it were my wine I would check the specific gravity immediately upon returning. If it is at or below 1.010 I would leave the wine in the primary fermenter to let it finish. Once fermentation completes I’d then rack to the secondary to begin the clearing process.

      If you rack while fermentation is still going on and the specific gravity is less than 1.010 you risk shocking the yeast and winding up with a stuck fermentation.

      I’ve made the assumption here that this kit did not include any fruit. If your kit came with skins and they’re in the fermenter now I would hesitate to leave them for that long. Likely it would be fine but there’s a chance that the skins can start to give off flavors and aromas in that 17 day window.

      I hope this helps Skip! Thanks for the question.

      -Matt Williams

  • farshid abdi

    Hi

    I just started the primary fermentation and 10 days is past. But sediments are not settled and so I can not go through second fermentation. Is there any thing wrong?
    thanks for your help

    • Hi Farshid! You can rack the wine to a secondary container before it clears. The idea is to get off of a deep pile of lees before it breaks down and gives your wine off flavors.

      Your wine will continue to clear over time and it may take a third or fourth racking to get the wine completely off the sediment that will continue to fall over the next month or two.

      I hope this helps! -Matt