There’s a lot of different information out there on when to rack your wine. Largely this is because you rack at different times for different reasons depending upon where you are in the wine making process.
1. When moving your wine from the primary fermenter to the secondary.
2. When moving your wine from the secondary fermenter to a bulk aging vessel.
3. After fermentation you can rack either for clarity or in and out of oak vessels.
Let’s take a look at why and when you rack wines during these different phases.
Racking from Primary to Secondary Fermentation Vessels
When making wine from fresh fruit you’ll want to rack within seven days or so of pitching your yeast to get off of the gross lees. This is the chunky fruit lees that collects at the bottom of your fermentation vessel.
If your wine is left on the gross lees for too long you’ll pick up off flavors and aromas. To avoid this you’ll want to rack 5-7 days after pitching the yeast.
When making wine from a kit you’ll usually rack your wine after 7 days or when your specific gravity reaches a specific reading, 1.010 for Winexpert kits. During these first seven days a lot of yeast or fine lees is produced.
In general you want to rack off of fine lees once it reaches a thickness of about 1/2 inch (13 mm for my metric friends) on the bottom of your fermenter or carboy. Any thicker than that and the yeast at the bottom can start to decay and produce off flavors and aromas.
You may want to consider racking once or twice during a long secondary fermentation. For instance, if you ferment a white wine at cool temperatures your total fermentation time can extend for several months. Keep an eye on that sediment layer and rack if it exceeds 1/2 inch (13 mm).
Racking from Secondary Fermentation Vessels to Bulk Aging Vessels
The second racking is done when fermentation has wrapped up. You’ll want to get your wine off of the lees and into an aging vessel. Either an oak barrel or carboy.
When this racking takes place depends entirely upon when fermentation ends. This could be a week or up to two months after your first racking. Letting your wine sit on the fine lees for more than two months can lead to flavor and aroma contributions from the decaying yeast. This is known as sur lie aging.
Post Fermentation Rackings
Once your wine is in bulk aging containers, oak or otherwise, your wine may still need to be racked. Normally you rack either to help your wine clear or to get it off the oak so it doesn’t pick up too much oak flavor.
When racking for clarity you’ll want to rack every two or three months to avoid sur lie flavors. These aren’t bad, in fact they are desireable in many cases, however, sur lie is not for every type of wine and must be carried out with the utmost care.
Don’t Over Do It
While racking is beneficial for clearing a wine and keeping it from picking up off flavors you don’t want to rack any more than absolutely necessary. Each time you rack you will expose your wine to some oxygen which will accelerate the aging process.
Beyond the oxygen when you rack you also risk exposing your wine to stray micro-organisms. If some piece of equipment wasn’t sanitized well enough you could be exposing your wine to spoilage organisms. Sanitizing is tedious work and sometimes we may miss a spot or two.
As you can see when you rack a wine depends on where you are in the process and why you’re racking. What’s presented here is merely a guide line. You’ll need to evaluate your wine by site, taste, and by considering the factors listed above such as time on the lees.
By understanding when to rack your wine you’ll be able to avoid over oxidizing as well as exposing your wine to decaying yeast. Both will help you make a better bottle of wine.
The most important guide lines to remember are:
1. Never let your wine sit on the fruit lees for more than seven days unless you understand how to perform an extended maceration or cold soak.
2. Rack your wine off of the fine lees when there’s 1/2 inch (13 mm) of sediment or after two months, whichever comes sooner.
3. Rack out of oak vessels once you’ve achieved a desired level of oak flavors.
You are in charge though. Use these guidelines as a starting place but let your senses be the deciding factor.
Photograph by: Tim Patterson