When To Start The Secondary Fermentation

Starting Secondary FermentationHow long can I let the wine ferment before racking into a carboy and starting the secondary fermentation? My wine has been working vigorously for almost three weeks now.

Russ — NY
Hello Russ,

When to start the secondary fermentation is a question we get from time to time. The quick answer is, “it depends”.

If you are fermenting on fruit pulp, you will want to move the wine into a secondary fermenter around the 4th to 7th day. Whether you rack on the 4th day or on the 7th day will make a noticeable difference in the body and color of the wine. The longer the pulp is in the primary fermentation, the more tannin and color pigmentation will be extracted from the fruit. So timing is important when there is fresh fruit involved.

If you are fermenting from a juice concentrate, where there is no pulp involved, when to start the secondary fermentation is still important but not nearly as critical. If you are fermenting an actual wine juice kit, then I strongly suggest that you follow the directions that came with it. It will specify a number of days before your first racking.

If you do not have an actual wine juice kit but are freestyling it with some juice concentrate you have, then I would take the following into consideration when determining when to start the secondary fermentation:

  • Shop CarboysYou will want the primary fermentation to be long enough to allow the yeast colony to grow into healthy numbers. The primary fermentation should be exposed to air. Don’t use an air-lock on it. Just cover it with a thin towel. Oxygen is what allows that little packet of wine yeast you added to flourish to about 100 to 200 times itself. If all goes well, this will happen in about 3 days.
  • The fermentation needs to have settled down enough so that it doesn’t foam out of the secondary fermenter. You do not want the secondary fermenter to have a lot of head-space, so there will be little room for foaming. Yes, you could employ a blow-off tube into a jug of water, but it is completely unnecessary to go through such measures when simply waiting longer will do. This is not an issue that will affect the wine. It’s more of a practicality issue.
  • You do not want the wine to be sitting on dead yeast cells for extended periods of time. You want to get the wine off the sediment in a timely manner. Not doing so can cause a condition known as autolysis. This is when the live yeast cells start feeding on dead yeast cells. This mostly happens the wine yeast run out of sugars to consume. This result is an off-taste in the wine that ranges from bitter-nut to metallic. For this reason the primary fermentation should last no longer than 2 weeks, and less than this if the fermentation has already stopped.

Shop Wine Making KitsRuss, all these things need to be considered when trying to figure out when to start the secondary fermentation. If you are making your wine from fresh fruit, the timing is fairly narrow 4 to 7 days. If you are making your wine from a wine juice kit, the answer’s simple: follow the directions. But if you on your own with some concentrate consider the three bullet-points above.

Happy Wine Making,
Customer Service at E. C. Kraus
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.