Racking is one of the most essential parts to making stellar wine. Generally, you will need to rack the wine at least two times and in some cases you may need to rack it as many as four times. Making sure that you rack in a timely fashion will ensure the wine is properly clarified as well as prevent off flavors.
If you are not familiar with racking, it is important to understand that racking does not refer to bottling the wine. This is a misinterpretation. Basically, racking involves siphoning the wine from one container to another. The purpose behind this is making sure that all of the sediment is left behind.
The first racking typically occurs about five days into the fermentation process. In some cases, you may wait one to two days; however, the first racking should always occur by day 7. This is because by this time you will need to place an air lock on the container in order to protect the wine must due to the fact that the fermentation has slowed down. Outside contaminant could easily influence the wine, so you will need to provide necessary protection using an air lock.
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You will also usually find that at this point in the fermentation process at least 70% of the sediment will have already begun to appear. If you rack between days five and seven, this will be a good opportunity to get rid of most of the sediment. It will be some time before the remainder of the sediment appears. Racking at this point is also important because it presents you with a chance to remove pulp from the must. This is imperative if you used fresh fruit instead of concentrate. If you leave pulp in the must for any longer, you may find that your wine has a harsh taste.
The second racking should take place when the fermentation process has been completed. The amount of time necessary for this to occur may vary. In some cases it may take only a few days following the first racking while in other cases it could be several weeks following the first racking. The amount of time depends on how quickly the fermentation progresses. After you have completed the second racking, do take care to re-apply the air lock as the must will still need some time in order to clear.
The third racking should take place after the wine has become completely clear. This will give you the chance to get rid of any remaining sediment. Under specific circumstances, you may find that it is necessary to perform subsequent rackings. For example, when you are aging a heavy red wine in bulk, you may find it necessary to rack the wine approximately every three months or so. This is because some sediment may still occur over the course of the wine being stored in bulk for a long period of time.
In the event you decide to use clarifiers or finings you may also need to perform subsequent rackings. In this case, you would need to rack the wine once before the wine is treated and then once again after treatment. It should be noted that it is entirely possible to rack your wine too many times. This should be avoided as it can cause the wine to become over-oxidized.