After harvesting grapes and squeezing out the juice, there are several things a home winemaker must do to make excellent wine. One of these is racking wine, which aids in the clarification of the wine and ensures that it is preserved in the best condition possible. The term sometimes throws off those who are new to winemaking, yet, in reality, the process of racking wine is reasonably straightforward.
Knowing Exactly When to Rack Wine at Home
There is a debate among wine experts regarding the right time to rack wine. This may be due to the fact that racking the wine is usually done at different times for different reasons.
The first racking is the most critical racking. Generally, it takes place shortly after pressing the wine. For red wine, pressing is usually done after the first fermentation is complete. The wine should settle out for at least 2 days before you rack off the thick layer of lees on the top.
If it is white wine or rose, the time of racking is different though. It is usually done after pressing but before fermentation. You may notice that the gross lees at this time consist mostly of fruit pulp. Get as much of this fruit pump separated if you can and chill the juice. If there are still a little bit of solids, don’t panic as these can help the fermentation.
The second racking takes place after the gross lees once again pile up to an uncomfortable level. As thick as ⅜ inch of gross less is considered not good for the long haul while over 1 inch thick is high-risk. To get a better read on the situation, agitate the lees by giving them a little swirl every once in a while.
For red wine, this second racking ideally occurs after malolactic fermentation is complete. Note that the red wine should be very clear, and only a small amount of sediment should lie at the container’s bottom. If the gross lees get to a slightly uncomfortable level before malolactic fermentation is complete, give them a little swirl but don’t rack yet. Only rack when malolactic fermentation is done, and the lees have begun to pile up again.
Do the second racking with some SO2 in anticipation of the upcoming aging period. Once racked, you may add spirals, staves, cubes, and other oak products. For white wine, the second racking is generally after fermentation is complete. At this stage, things should have settled out for 2 days. If you don’t want the buttery taste, you should top up the wine to prevent malolactic fermentation.
Here’s an easy tip for racking wine: Every time you rack, always get as much liquid as you can to minimize losses. Don’t worry about some sediment that comes with it because it’s not about eliminating all the sediment, but leaving the bulk of the sediment behind. Besides, it’s not until you get to your final racking that you will want to get rid of all the sediment.
If you’re like beginning winemakers that try to eliminate all the sediment with each racking, you may lose too much wine. Losses can total up to 5 bottles in a 5 or 6-gallon batch when you try the elimination method at the expense of a little wine.
Once your wine is in bulk aging containers, you can perform the third racking. This final racking is meant to help the wine clear and get it off the oak to avoid too much oak flavor. While racking is beneficial for clear results, you should not rack more than necessary. Some home winemakers add a fourth racking cycle, but this needs the right materials to determine alcohol content and specific gravity.
Each racking exposes the wine to some oxygen which may speed up the aging process. Besides, your wine may risk exposing your wine to stray micro-organisms if some of the equipment during racking isn’t sanitized well enough. To be on the safe side, don’t rack unless you have a reason to do so.
Racking Wine At Home: Step-by-Step
Ideally, the only materials needed for racking wine at home are second container and siphonic equipment. But, you may choose to add several low-cost materials that make racking wine much easier and more efficient such as pinch clips, racking canes, siphon tube ends, and siphon pumps.
If you’re wondering how to rack the wine from a barrel, follow these steps:
- Sterilize everything that will come in contact with the wine, including your hands. The rule of thumb in making good wine is to prioritize sanitation. It’s the most important thing for your winemaking success. It might be a little help to keep in mind that you will consume your own wine, so maximum sanitation should be observed throughout the process. If you need a lot of equipment in one day, it is recommended that you sanitize in bulk to save a little more of your sanitizing agents.
- Put the container with wine on a tabletop or high chair. Gently do this so as not to disturb the sediment. Then, place the first container higher than the second container’s position on the ground. This setup will make racking wine a lot easier. Once the containers are in place, insert one end of the tubing into the first container and fix it about 8 inches above the sediment level. If you don’t have a clip at your disposal, you can just use your hands to steady the tubing in this position.
- To begin the liquid flow, use a siphon pump or suck on the other end of the tube. Be sure to have the other end of the tubing perfectly positioned in the second container. To keep the flow at a faster rate, slowly tilt the first container. This will expose more liquid to the length of the siphon tubing.
- You’re done with the process once bits of sediment or oxygen bubbles make their way down the siphon tubing into the second container. Remember to close the tubing with a pinch clip and drain the remaining liquid in the tubing into the sink. Also, seal the liquid into the new container with an airlock.
Looking After Your Homemade Wine
After racking wine then comes the most important stage of all- looking after your bottles. Whether you’ve got 10 or 100 bottles, you probably don’t want your wine to go bad before you get a chance to drink it. The only way to make sure that your wine stays safe and matures perfectly is to follow a few simple guidelines:
Keep it cool. Wine’s number one enemy is heat. The average room temperature will only make the wine taste duller if not go completely bad. The ideal temperature range is 55° F. Use a wine cellar or wine refrigerator to give your wines the chance to express themselves fully.
If you’re thinking about keeping your wine in your kitchen refrigerator, know that this can be equally harmful. Aside from being too cold for your wine, kitchen refrigerators only dry out the wine’s cork. Hence, it’s essential to keep your wine cool but not too cool.
Don’t sweat the humidity. There are conflicting views out there about proper humidity. One side argues that wines should be stored at an ideal humidity level of 100% because it’s liquid. The other side recommends 70% humidity because dry air will dry out the corks, thereby letting air in and spoiling the wine. Generally, anywhere between 60% and 80% humidity is considered safe.
Store it somewhere convenient. Although it may be ideal storage, it’s not practical to keep it in the upstairs closet. In case you need a bottle for when your friends come over, you’ll be thankful about storing your bottles somewhere convenient and easily accessible. But, this doesn’t mean that you can just store your wine on top of your refrigerator.
Although this is convenient, your refrigerator gives off a significant amount of heat, and this can make your wine go bad. It would help if you also consider all the vibrations that your refrigerator gives off that might alter the wine’s taste and speed up the liquid’s chemical reactions. The top of your refrigerator is also very close to light from harsh household bulbs which can degrade and prematurely age your wine. Besides damaging the wine, light fixtures can fade your labels in the long run.
Also read: How to Recork a Wine Bottle
Store it on its side, instead of upright. You may have seen wine stored upright in a friend’s house, but this is not the proper way to store it. If the wine is upright, the liquid is not hitting the cork. The cork will then dry out in the long run, letting oxygen seep in and spoil the wine. To keep the wine in constant contact with the cork, invest in a custom-built wine cellar or a tabletop wine.