Reducing Wine Loss
Two common complaints from novice (and sometimes not-so-novice) kit winemakers are:
- “Why am I not getting 23 liters of wine from a 23 liter wine kit?”
- “Why did I have to top up the 23 liter carboy with nearly 4 liters of wine?”
In this post I address these two complaints.
Note: winemaking is, more and more, being spoken of using the metric system, and I’m using it more often in my writings. A quick translation is 23 liters = 6 US gallons, 19 liters = 5 US gallons, and 4 liters = 1 US gallon. Also, unless otherwise specified, all “wine kits” mentioned in this post are 23 liter kits.
The terms “gross lees” and “fine lees” are used in winemaking. “Gross lees” is fruit solids that precipitate in a sometimes heavy layer. This will begin to rot at some point, and it’s necessary to remove the wine from the gross lees. “Fine lees” is yeast solids, and is not harmful to the wine. “Sur lie” is a technique of aging white wine on the fine lees to enhance aroma and flavor, and the wine does not need to be removed from the fine lees until bottling time.
Also, while the tactics are described from the point of view of kits, they apply to any type of winemaking.
Complaint 1 — “Why am I not getting 23 liters of wine from a 23 liter wine kit?”
This one is simple to explain — it’s a misunderstanding on the part of the customer. Kits contain a mixture of grape juice and/or grape concentrate. Any kit containing concentrate must be reconstituted to a total of 23 liters using water.
The “23 liters” in the kit description is the volume to which the kit is reconstituted before fermentation begins.
Grape juice and concentrate contains grape pulp particles, which drop out as sediment (gross lees) during and after fermentation. This is normal and expected; it is a part of winemaking. As a result, the final volume of wine will be less than 23 liters.
Which leads into :
Complaint 2 — “Why did I have to top up the 23 liter carboy with X liters of wine?”
As previously mentioned, there will be a reduction in volume due to gross lees precipitating out. This is normal and expected; there’s nothing to be done about it.
There is also a certain amount of loss during racking, as a small amount of wine will be left behind when avoiding siphoning the sediment up. Some folks waste a lot of wine during racking, which results in needing a lot of wine to top up the carboy.
The good news is that this CAN be addressed. In the following sections I explain what I do to limit wine loss during racking.
Note: All equipment that touches wine must be clean and sanitized. The following tactics assume this is true.
Tactic 1 — First Racking or Pressing
During the first racking of juice or pressing of fruit, I do a “dirty racking”, meaning that I don’t worry about eliminating sediment. My goal here is to leave as little wine behind as possible. The wine is “muddy” at this point, so a bit of extra makes no difference.
I don’t intentionally transfer thick sludge, but may transfer loose sludge.
Tactic 2 — Second Racking
A lot of folks are in a hurry to get the wine off the gross lees as fast as possible, so they rack very quickly. It’s known that once gross lees settles it will begin to rot, adversely affecting the wine. Some sources state this happens as soon as the lees hits the bottom of the carboy.
My experience is that the need to remove the wine from the gross lees is not as urgent as some claim.
I let the lees build up until I see it settle, compacting. Use a grease pencil to mark the level if desired; I can visibly notice the lees becoming more solid. I wait until this point before racking.
For this racking, the gross lees can be thick, so I do another dirty racking, not worrying if I suck up some sediment. It settled out once, it will settle out again. The point is to limit wine loss.
Tactic 3 — Tilt the Carboy
When racking from a carboy (or barrel) I hold the racking cane off the bottom of the container, so that it’s not near the lees. When the wine levels gets low, I tilt the carboy and move the cane so that it’s in the lower section, still keeping it out of the lees. As the level drops, I move the end of the cane lower, until I see is sucking up sediment.
If this is the second racking, I may suck up a bit more sediment. For subsequent rackings, I stop as soon as I see sediment moving into the cane.
Tactic 4 — Clear the Remainder
After racking, I pour the loose sludge, if any, into a wine bottle and put it in the refrigerator for a week, where the cold will help the lees to quickly settle. I typically save about half the volume as the wine clears, and I carefully pour the wine off the lees.
Sometimes there’s nothing to save so it’s a wasted effort. Other times I’ve had a bottle of what looked like toxic sludge condense to 1″ in the bottom of the bottle. In my experience, it’s worth the effort.
Tactic 5 — Checking the Specific Gravity
I check and record the Specific Gravity (SG) each time I rack. I use a FermTech wine thief, which is wide enough to hold a hydrometer. It’s easy to use: I lower the hydrometer into the thief, lower the thief into the wine until it fills sufficiently to float the hydrometer, take the reading, then press the pin at the bottom of the thief against the inside of the carboy to release the wine back into the carboy. It subjects the wine to minimal air exposure and works easily.
Some folks use a test jar, typically a tall plastic tube with a wide base. Fill it with wine and drop the hydrometer into it.
DO NOT throw out that wine! If all equipment is clean and sanitized, it’s fine. Pour it back in the carboy.
As a novice winemaker, I knew an experienced winemaker who felt the need to rack his wines every month for a year. At each racking he tested the SG and threw out the wine, because it was “contaminated”. At the end of the year he was mystified that he had used so much top up wine. Others told him to stop throwing out his wine, but he refused to listen.
and finally …
Tactic 6 — Rack Only When Necessary
In the above story, the experienced winemaking racked his wines every month. I was originally taught to rack wines in bulk storage every 3 months.
Today? I rack only when necessary.
If a wine in bulk has no sediment or has fine lees (yeast solids, which can enhance wine aroma and flavor), I do not rack as there is no value — what is racking accomplishing in this situation. The wine is being unnecessarily exposed to air and there will be at least a bit of wine volume lost due to the racking.
I add Potassium Metabisulfite (K-meta) at each racking after fermentation, and every 3 months during bulk aging. For barrels, I add the K-meta and stir gently, then top up (barrels require periodic top up). For carboys, I remove wine using a FermTech thief, stir in the K-meta, then restore the wine.
When making kits, by using the above tactics, it’s likely that the loss of volume will amount to 1 to 2 bottles of wine.
In the past I aged the wine in 19 liter carboys and had excess in a group of smaller containers. At this time I am using either a 19 liter carboy and 4 liter jug, or a 23 liter carboy. In either case, I use a compatible wine to top up to the full container(s) volume.
Why? It’s a lot less hassle on my part and I don’t have a bunch of small containers to mess with.