There is a bit of confusion out there as to what the difference is between primary and secondary fermentation. Sometimes secondary fermentation is confused with a second fermentation and other times malolactic fermentation. Let’s set the record straight.

Primary Fermentation

The beginning stages of primary fermentation.

A Primary Fermentation Bucket

Before we talk about secondary fermentation lets start at the beginning with primary fermentation. This stage starts as soon as you add your yeast to the must. During this stage the yeast population is growing rapidly.

You know you’re in the primary stage because there’s a lot of visible activity. There’s often a lot of foam on top of the must and your airlock will be bubbling like crazy.

Why? The yeast population growing really fast because of the huge supply of sugar, nutrients, and oxygen they lucked into. It’s like a party in there. Everyone is hopped up on sugar and bouncing off the walls.

This is the most active and productive phase of fermentation. In fact up to 70% of the total amount of alcohol is produced during this stage which only lasts about three to five days. After that we move into secondary fermentation.

Secondary Fermentation

After a while things start to slow down. The oxygen has been depleted and the bulk of the sugar has been used up. Because of this the yeast population is no longer expanding. In fact life is getting hard for the yeast.

Secondary fermentation often takes place in glass carboys.

A Secondary Fermentation Carboy

Alcohol levels have risen to the point that it is affecting the yeasts ability to reproduce and even survive. Many cells are dying off and collecting at the bottom of the fermenter. This is one of the reasons we have to rack the wine after primary fermentation is over. We don’t want to pick up any off flavors from the dead yeast.

Secondary fermentation lasts between a week to two weeks. Obviously this is a much slower stage in the process. Primary fermentation took three to five days and produced 70% of our alcohol while secondary fermentation takes up to two weeks just to get the last 30%.

The foam will disappear and you will see tiny bubbles breaking at the surface of your wine. Your airlock will now be bubbling every 30 seconds or so.

There is no identifying event that separates the primary stage from the secondary stage. When it happens depends on the grape varietal, sugar content, yeast strain, fermentation temperature, etc. In other words you just have to watch your airlock or the level of activity at the surface.

Secondary Fermentation is not a Second Fermentation

This is where it gets confusing. A second fermentation is where excess sugar not previously consumed by the yeast restarts alcoholic fermentation. Commonly this happens when a wine is back sweetened before all the yeast have died.

Some people mistakenly refer to malolactic fermentation as a second fermentation. I think it makes sense to differentiate between the two so that we’re speaking a common language. Malolactic fermentation is malolactic fermentation.

Second fermentations usually happen by accident except when making sparkling wines. Sparkling wines are bottled before the yeast is dead and a little unfermented grape must is added to give the yeast something to eat. In so doing the carbon dioxide produced is trapped in the bottle and we have bubbly. That’s the short version.

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  • Maria

    Good morning Matt

    From what I understand (so far) the primary fermentation is done in an open bucket (without the lid) since the air plays an important role in the multiplication of yeast cells, it is an aerobic process; after 3-5 days you rack it into a carboy and place the airlock, the process becomes anaerobic, in this phase air exposure should be kept to a minimum. I got this information from


    • Matt Williams

      Hello Maria!

      You are correct, oxygen plays a very important role in the fermentation process up until the yeast has reached a healthy population. Once that has been achieved if we do not restrict yeasts access to oxygen it will not produce the alcohol we are looking for.

      Primary fermentations tend to be quite vigorous so as the yeast population grows and the volumes of carbon dioxide produced increase you reach a point where the carbon dioxide produces a protective blanket over the wine thus limiting its exposure to oxygen.

      Check out The Epic Rise and Tragic Fall of a Yeast Empire for more information on the yeast life cycle. This goes into the role of oxygen, why we use airlocks, and more. Understanding how the population grows, struggles, and then dies is very important to making great wines. Everything we do in the beginning is to facilitate this process.



  • willowbel .

    Hi matt Im a first time wine maker here and have just batched my first mulberry wine..firstly I did my primary fermentation with a lid and airlock as I had learned that the airlock can help determine when the primary fermentation is finished and ready for the second phase. So I did a SG reading on day two of fermentating and it read at 1.090 the second reading I did was at day 5 at that read 1.020 so I racked of the wine mashed the berries and added in the extra liquid into a new barrel and placed the lid back on with the airlock the instructions said to leave it like this for 6 months and racking 2 times in between, after this you can bottle the wine where it has to be left for a futher 6 months to allow the wine to if I do a sg reading after the 6 months before I go to bottle it and my sg reading is at 1.000 what will this mean, does it mean the fermentation is complete and how will the wine go clear as it is still cloudy?

    • Matt Williams

      Hello willowbel! First of all, congrats on starting your wine making journey. I really hope you enjoy this first batch.

      As for your question, an isolated specific gravity reading of 1.000 won’t tell you much except how much. What is more useful is comparing two specific gravity readings to each other.

      Two identical readings taken a couple weeks apart means fermentation is over. If there is any difference between the two readings your wine is still fermenting. Make sure you’re correcting your specific gravity readings for temperature differences though or you could get a false indication that things are still fermenting.

      Here’s an article on temperature correction that you may find useful <a href="; target="_blank"Specific Gravity Temperature Correction Calculator.

      Wines can and do clear on their own. It takes longer than using a clarifier. Most wines clear in three to six months though if you have the patience :)

      I hope this helps. Keep those questions coming if you’ve got any!

  • Crash

    Hi folks. Should I rack my wine now that it’s been 7 days since I added the must to my demijohns? I bought my juice already pressed. The company adds the proper yeast to it when they press it. The bubbling has stopped almost completely with my reds and is still going a tiny bit with the white.

    • Matt Williams

      Hi Crash! I believe it is best to rack a wine when the specific gravity has dropped to between 1.030 and 1.010. If the SG is higher I’ll wait longer. If the SG dips below 1.010 in the primary fermenter I’ll wait it out and let fermentation complete where it is.

      Racking a wine at less than 1.010 SG can cause the yeast to go into shock and possible lead to a stuck fermentation.

      I hope this helps! -Matt

  • Margaret S

    Help. I have made wine once before and it turned out great. I am making apple wine from both fresh apples that I juiced and apple juice I bought. Everything was still perking really great on day three after yeast was added with a generous head on the yeast. Before adding the yeast my sg was 1.100. I didn’t check the sg until day 5 now when it quit bubbling and the sg is down to 1.00. This is bad isn’t it. I don’t know whether to rack it into the carboys now or if there is something else I should do before doing that. That is too low of a reading, right? I should have tested it on day 4 when the bubbling slowed down. I still have it in a 6 gallon bucket covered with a light towel. Please help. (5 gallons of juice)

    • Matt Williams

      Hi Margaret! I recommend getting your wine into a smaller container at this point. A 5 gallon carboy sounds like it would hold your wine nicely and keep the head space to a minimum.

      You may or may not see any further fermentation. That is dependent upon how tolerant your yeast strain is to alcohol. You’re currently at about 13.6% which is pretty good. It may go further but it may not. Give it some time in the carboy and see how it goes.

      If you take two specific gravity readings a week a part and compare them you’ll know if it is still fermenting. Two readings that are the same taken a week a part is a good indication that fermentation is over.

      Thanks for the question Margaret I hope this helps. -Matt

  • Matt Williams

    Hi Dileep! Great question. I would keep your wine in the container it is in until fermentation slows down noticeably or if it stops all together. How long that takes depends on your yeast straing, amount of nutrients, and the temperature of the wine. So it’s hard to predict.

    In general you’ll want to rack (siphon) the wine to a different container if the sediment gets to be 1″ deep or so. You didn’t mention if there was pineapple fruit in your must or not, if there is you only want to stay on the fruit for a maximum of seven days.

    I hope this helps! -Matt

  • Matt Williams

    Hi Walker, this is an interesting thing to happen. I’ve had the same thing happen when making a strawberry wine. I recommend you go ahead and rack the wine and start the clarification and degassing processes.

    Once primary fermentation is over you definitely want to get your wine out of the primary fermenter and into a carboy in order to reduce the head space and therefore oxygen exposure.

    I hope this helps Walker! -Matt

  • Matt Williams

    Hi Mary! A specific gravity of 0.990 is not unheard of but it is at the bottom of the typical specific gravity ranges one expects to see.

    What was your original specific gravity? Knowing the original and final specific gravity readings can help paint a more complete picture of what you’ve got on your hands.

    How does the wine taste at this stage?

    Cheers! -Matt

  • Monty

    Mr. Williams,

    First thanks for the great article. I was looking for information
    on the primary fermentation process and what the steps are for determining when
    to finish out the fermentation in a smaller container (carboy).

    I have started a 6 gallon batch of Blackberry and Raspberry
    wine 7 days ago. I am aiming for a higher alcohol content of around 14 percent.
    Starting SG was around the desired 1.108 ish. And I measured today (day 7) and
    found it to be 1.045. Fermentation is still very active and it seems the party
    is still a rockin. The yeast I used is rated for up to 20 percent alcohol

    My question is this. Most posting I have read state to move
    the primary fermentation off of the fruit around day 6-7 into a smaller
    container. But I have also seen as stated in one of your comments to rack it at
    1.030 ish. Is it bad to leave the primary fermentation in the bucket on fruit
    until I actually reach the 1.030? I have heard that you can pick up off- flavors
    by leaving it on the fruit to long. Some even say get it off the fruit on day
    3. I understand it is taking longer because of the higher potential alcohol
    (sugar) level at start-up. I am just trying to figure out if I should remove
    the fruit now or let it ride.

    This is only the second batch I have made. So I am learning
    as I go.



    • Matt Williams

      Hi Monty, great question! I recommend racking at 6-7 days if on the fruit or when you reach 1.030, whichever comes first. Staying on the fruit beyond 6-7 days can result in off flavors in some cases as the fruit begins to decay. Racking when your specific gravity is less than 1.030 can potentially put the yeast in shock and your fermentation will stop. So monitor the specific gravity and rack when you reach 6-7 days or sooner if the SG reaches 1.030. I hope this helps!

  • G-Pain

    Hello Matt, my primary fermentation began with an Sg of 1.090 and a lot of activity, after day 5 secondary fermentation with transfer into carboy and Sg of 0.998, had some activity for two days and now airlock only burps every 3 minutes after day 4 of secondary fermentation. Should I wait the additional 6 days as instructions state or move to stabilising and clearing now? Or is limited activity normal in the secondary stage?? Thanks from a first time wine guy!

    • Matt Williams

      Great question, Secondary fermentation is a lot slower than primary fermentation. It takes a while to get that last bit of alcohol fermented.

      I recommend waiting and going by the instructions. If you bottle too soon you could end up with trapped carbon dioxide which isn’t safe unless you’re using champagne bottles.

      Your specific gravity could go as low as 0.990. Time is the best thing to give a wine. Incidentally it’s also the toughest thing as well.

      I’m glad you’re giving winemaking a go! Let me know how it turns out.

      Cheers! -Matt

    • G-Pain

      Hello Matt, can I degass my wine multiple days until the process is complete in the stabilising stage? Will removing the airlock multiple times to degass hurt the process and can the airlock tell you if degass is complete?

      • Matt Williams

        Another great question! You can degas over multiple days. Just be careful about oxygen exposure. Also, only do this if you haven’t yet added your clarifier. Stirring up settled lees that has clarifier in it will lead to a cloudy mess and you’ll likely have to add another clarifier to get it to clear after you’ve finished degassing.

        Cheers! -Matt