Knowing when to do what when making a wine is critical to producing a quality wine. When you make wine from a kit each and every step is spelled out for you but when you go to make wine from fresh fruit it’s up to you to decide / determine when to perform each of the necessary steps.

Wine making timeline.What follows is a guide that you can use as a starting place to for outlining your own wine making timeline. Your mileage will certainly vary but this should be a good starting place. Remember to experiment and refine your process. Eventually you’ll dial in your own timeline that works for you.

Day 1: Prepare the must

On the first day of wine making you need to prepare your fruit, add in your additives such as sugar, water, sulfites, yeast nutrients, tannins, acid blend, pectic enzymes, and bentonite. You don’t necessarily need to use all of these additives but these are the most common ones called for in wine recipes and if you are going to use them now is the time to get them added.

Fruit wines tend to call for more additives to shape the must into something that will be palatable once fermented. Grape wines require much less in the way of additives and the highest quality grapes will only need sulfites for protection against oxidation and spoilage organisms.

Give your must 24 hours before pitching the yeast. This gives the must time to extract the flavor, aroma, and color compounds from the fruit. You can certainly go longer but be mindful of the sulfite levels and watch for wild yeast or microbial fermentation.

Day 2: Pitch the Yeast

After a day of maceration it’s time to get this show going. You’ll start by hydrating your yeast. This is done to help them get off to a strong start and to ensure fermentation is dominated by the wine making yeast of your choice. You may optionally let the wild yeast on the fruit ferment the wine but I recommend leaving this to experienced wine makers.

Be absolutely sure that the temperature difference between your hydrated yeast and the must is 10 degrees F (6 degrees C) or less. You don’t want to send the yeast into thermal shock. They may not come out of it and you’ll need to try again with another pack of yeast.

Days 3-9: Stir, Test, Stir

For the next seven days you’ll want to open up the fermenter and give the fruit a bit of a squish or punch down to help mix up the fruit and fermenting wine. While the container is open go ahead and take a specific gravity reading.

Do this every day until it is time to rack. How do you know when to rack? I recommend racking after the wine has been on the fruit for seven days or when the specific gravity drops to between 1.030 and 1.010. Whichever happens first.

Leaving the wine on the fruit longer than seven days is tricky to pull off and you’re risking picking up off flavors as the fruit decays. Also, if you rack the wine when the specific gravity is less than 1.010 you could send the yeast into shock and wind up with a stuck fermentation.

Day 10 and Beyond

After you’ve racked to the secondary container the timeline gets a little more flexible. Depending upon how aggressive your yeast is, how much sugar you started with, yeast nutrient levels, and the temperature of your fermentation things could continue fermenting for a few days or a couple of months.

Here’s how to know what to do next and when to do it.

Rack the wine if the sediment gets to be 1/2” (13mm) thick or more. You don’t want the dead yeast cells at the very bottom to start to decay and give your wine off flavors.

Another rule of thumb is to rack off of the lees after two months even if it didn’t get to be 1/2” (13mm) thick. Over time the yeast will decay regardless of how deep it gets. You may opt to leave it on the lees and do a sur lie aging but that is something you’ll have to monitor closely.

Lastly, if your wine falls bright (clear) and you want to give it some bulk aging time go ahead and rack off of the lees and store the wine in a carboy with an airlock on it. I personally don’t recommend using solid plugs on carboys as any increase in temperature could pop that plug right out. Alternatively a temperature drop could lodge that plug in there to the point where it is really difficult to get out (I’ve been there).

Degassing, Filtering, Clarifying, & Stabilizing

Degassing WIneAfter fermentation has ended you may proceed with degassing, filtering, clarifying, and stablizing. You don’t necessarily need to do all of these to your wine but now is the time to take care of them if you plan to.

I let my wines sit in the carboy until they are clear and degassed. Typically I’ll add sulfites at this time to keep the wine stable as it ages.

Bottling & Back Sweetening

You may bottle the wine any time you like after it has reached the level of clarity you are happy with and once the carbon dioxide has come out of suspension. Remember, anything that goes into the bottle stays in the bottle. If it’s goes in cloudy you’ll have a pile of sediment in the bottom when you pour it out. If you bottle a wine that has suspended carbon dioxide it’ll be carbonated when you open it.

Bottle aging your wine does give it time to mature and develop into something amazing. It does not, however, mend mistakes or make sediment and carbon dioxide disappear.

Back sweetening should be done at the time of bottling so that you don’t give any stray spoilage micro-organisms the chance to colonize your wine. You want the time between back sweetening and bottling to be as short as possible. Practice careful sanitation too.

Your Experience May Vary

What I’ve presented here should be taken as a starting place for your own experimentation. My wine making area is consistently around 67 degrees F (19 degrees C). If you live in India or even South Texas and are making wine in temperatures between 85-90 degrees F (30-32 degrees C) your wine making time table will likely be much shorter than mine. Alternatively, wine makers in Canada or northern Europe may experience a much longer time table.

Take your time and base your decisions on when to act on your observations. Taste testing and monitoring the specific gravity are the two best things you can do to monitor your progress. Be sure to record your observations in a wine making log of some kind (here’s a free winemaking log you can use).

Wines can be very flexible and forgiving. If you feel unsure of whether or not you need to rack, bottle, or what have you take the time to ask for advice. Contact me or call a local wine making club or supply shop for advice.

Photograph of wine glass by: let ideas compete

Photograph of degassing tool by: Tim Patterson

  • Skip O’Neill

    Thanks Matt for the insight and the help the other week with the idea to speed up primary fermentation of 70 lbs of Texas Merlot grapes. Your tip to increase the temperature just short of the yeast maximum helped prior to premature pressing. Two weeks later, so far so good.

    • Absolutely Skip! I hope it does the trick for you. Please let me know how it turns out in the end.

      Cheers!
      -Matt Williams

  • Aaron Howard

    Matt, I like your advice about when to rack off the grape skins. I removed the skins when gravity hit 1.020 which took about 4 days in primary. As a result, I didn’t have any funky, off-flavors from the decomposing skins. Historically, I’ve always left the skins in for 7 full days so I could get more tannins & color but I see now that it’s too long. These are concord grapes, by the way. Cheers!

    • Hi Aaron, I’m glad to hear your wine is tasting and smelling good! Maceration is a touchy thing and I do believe it will vary from fruit to fruit and be further affected by the climate you’re fermenting in. Hot fermentation temperatures tend to speed things like this up. Keep me posted on your progress with this one! -Matt