Image (modified): Tim Patterson
In order to make the progression from novice winemaker to expert vintner, there are several processes that a hobbyist must master.
Most of the steps in winemaking are more complex than they appear, and mastery of subordinate processes can make all the difference in the taste and consistency of your final vintage. Learning how to rack homemade wine (and also how to bottle wine and how to cork a wine bottle) is an essential skill and also how to rack homemade wine is an that will improve the quality of your wine by refining the fermentation process, locking in good flavors and exorcising bad ones.
Luckily, it can be accomplished relatively simply with only a few materials (and knowledgeable use of earth's gravitational force!) that can be easily and cheaply purchased at your local hardware or homebrew store.
When winemakers speak of racking, they are using a shorthand term for the process by which they siphon their wine into a different container in order to separate the wine from its sediment.
Racking can occur up to four times during a batch's fermentation process for certain red wines. The sediment must be removed from the batch because its presence can cause off-flavors to develop and disturb the fragile taste balance in the wine.
The sediment that collects at the bottom of a fermenting wine's container is usually a mix of dead yeast cells and pulpy residue from any fruit that was used in the mix.
Besides being visually unappealing, this sediment can affect fermentation in extremely negative ways.
Massive quantities of yeast are used in wine production, and in the presence of either oxygen or sugar, yeast cells multiply, through a process called budding, to up to 100 to 200 times their original number. In wine production, these chemical reactions produce an output of carbon dioxide and ethanol alcohol.
That means at the end of the fermentation process, when the liquid's sugars have all been converted to ethanol, there are still large quantities of yeast particles in the wine that want to react with another particle. If the sediment is not removed, the active yeast will actually begin reacting with the dead yeast cells. A few weeks worth of these chemical reactions can ruin an entire batch (of white wine especially) by creating metallic or plastic notes in the bouquet.
Wine racking is more of an art than an exact science, and many experienced vintners have conflicting views on when different wines should be racked. However, most people in the industry agree that wine should be racked when it is moving into different containers: either from the primary fermenting vessel to a secondary vessel, from a secondary vessel to a bulk aging vessel, or even during a post-fermentation vessel move meant to increase clarity and avoid lie aging effects. (As a side note, "sur lie" aging is when vintners allow wine to sit on its fine lees while aging—some vintners do this purposely in order to encourage flavor contributions from dead and decaying yeast cells.)
Generally, the first rack takes place when the wine has been fermenting for 5-7 days. There are several reasons for this suggested time period:
The second racking takes place after fermentation is complete: the wine should be relatively clear, and the container should have only a small amount of sediment at the bottom. Many home winemaker blogs suggest performing the second rack when sediment levels have reached half of an inch in the container or carboy. Usually this second rack occurs approximately one to two months after the first rack, but home winemakers should lean heavily on both their hydrometers, in order to determine specific gravity and, therefore, alcohol content, and their senses.
Many home winemakers also favor adding a third or fourth racking cycle to the wine production process. These racks take the place of filtering, which is difficult to accomplish properly without the materials available to commercial and large-scale wineries.
These racks are mainly for increasing clarity and for bulk storage situations—when storing large quantities of wine, racking should be done to clear collected sediment about every two months. Home winemakers should be careful not to rack their batch too many times, as over-racking can lead to diminished flavor and unnecessary exposure to oxygen and external contaminants or microorganisms.
For those readers who are visual learners and would prefer to watch an instructional video rather than read a written summary, Lakeland Winery has an excellent video demonstration of how to rack homemade wine. Note the simplicity of the process and the presence of only a few materials. Racking can be easily accomplished with only a pair of containers (at least one with an airlock), siphoning equipment and an airlock.
Technically, the only materials necessary for wine racking are a second container and a food-grade siphon hose, but there are several low-cost additions that make the task much easier and more efficient. Siphon pumps, siphon tube ends or racking canes, and pinch clips or traditional clips are essential pieces of equipment for the passionate home vintner.
The racking process itself is very straightforward. First, make sure to sterilize each piece that will come into contact with the wine, including the tubing, the second container and ESPECIALLY your own hands.
Next, gently place the container with wine in it on a tabletop or high chair without disturbing the sediment. By placing the first container high above the second container's position on the ground, we can take advantage of gravity's power to make our lives easier. When the containers are both set up, place one end of the tubing into the first container and fix it about 5-7 centimeters above the sediment level; use either your hands or a clip to steady the tubing in this position.
To begin the siphon, either suck on the other end of the tube (not recommended because of potential contamination) or use a siphon pump to begin the flow of liquid. Rapidly place the other end of the tubing into the second container, and wait. The liquid should be flowing down and out of the first container at a steady rate. As the liquid transfers containers, slowly tilt the first container so that more liquid is exposed to the length of siphon tubing.
The process is finished when either oxygen bubbles or bits of sediment make their way down the tubing into the other container. When this occurs, use a pinch clip to close the tubing and drain the remainder of the liquid in the tubing into the sink. Use the airlock to seal the liquid into the new container and your rack is complete! Don't forget to wash and rinse all of your equipment so that microorganisms cannot build up inside of it.
Wine racking is a simple process, but learning how to rack homemade wine can vastly improve the quality of your product. Your technique will grow and improve as you spend more time racking, as will the depth of your knowledge; which wine varieties respond better to racking, which sterilization techniques work best, and which equipment set-up is most efficient.
Knowing how to rack wine will help separate your vintage from the mediocre work of other home vintners—now practice, practice, practice!
As an assistant D.A. in a small city, Tim Packard always drank whiskey whenever he was out to dinner with clients, until an Italian mobster introduced him to a classic Valpolicella. One mouthful of the latest vintage, round with the flavor of cherries and earth, and he never again allowed friends to order the second-best wine.