The 1-3-3 Rule

On WineMakingTalk, there is a fair amount of discussion regarding the timing of activities. This made me think about what I do now, what I was originally taught, and how things changed in between.

As a fledgling wine maker, I was taught the 1-3-3 Rule.

This translates into 1 week, 3 weeks, 3 months — the intervals for actions in wine making.

The short description: Fermentation takes a week, then press. Let the wine clear 3 weeks then rack. Rack again after 3 months and bottle. The total duration is 4 months. The guys that followed this procedure generally had clear wine that was degassed and ready to bottle. As a general guideline, this timing worked fairly well, in my recollection ~95% of the time. A few wines were not ready to bottle at the 4 month mark, but only a few.

Where Did The 1-3-3 Rule Come From?

Hydrometer

I’ve been using a hydrometer since 1984, so for me the idea of not using one is not only foreign, it’s unthinkable. Once I understood what a hydrometer is used for, it became an essential tool.

A hydrometer measures Specific Gravity (SG) in a liquid, a comparison of the density of that liquid with respect to water. When a liquid, such as grape juice, contains sugar, the hydrometer indicates how much sugar is present. From that, the Alcohol By Volume (ABV) can be predicted. Checking the SG during fermentation tells the winemaker how much the fermentation has progressed, and when fermentation is complete, e.g., there is no more sugar for the yeast to eat.

Keep in mind that fermentation stopping does not mean it’s completed. Fermentation can stop for a lot of reasons, only one of which is the yeast is out of sugar to eat. If the hydrometer indicates there is sugar remaining in the must, bottling is hazardous as the fermentation may restart in the bottle, blowing corks and leaking wine. [Yeast eats sugar, and emits alcohol and CO2.]

Prior to the widespread usage of hydrometers, winemakers used timing to determine when to perform certain actions. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it works most of the time and there were not more accurate options available.

A number of the guys who taught me didn’t use hydrometers, they made wine the way they were taught, and they passed that knowledge on to me.

Note: The 1-3-3 Rule doesn’t exactly apply to barrels, as the barrel contents are bottled just before the following year’s wine is ready to go into the barrel. Barrels must be kept full so they don’t dry out and leak, and/or grow molds and mildew. While a holding solution of potassium metabisulfite and citric acid can be used, the guys that taught me took out last year’s wine and immediately put in this year’s wine, about 1 month after the new wine was started.

What Do I Do?

Over the course of a few years I altered how I make wine, and over the following 3 decades I honed my method.

1 Week?

One week for fermentation is often accurate, although I’ve had fermentations complete in 4 days, and have fermented white wines at 58 F which took 3+ weeks.

However, I use the hydrometer, typically racking white wines and fruit wines when the SG is between 1.010 and 1.000.

Note: The SG of water is 1.000, but an SG of 1.000 in wine indicates there is still some remaining sugar. The final SG of most wines is between 0.990 and 0.996 — it’s lighter than water because alcohol is lighter than water.

Red grapes I like to press between 0.998 and 1.000 — the extra time provides more skin contact time, so more constituents are leached out of the grape skin and pulp.

A critical factor is free time — family and work commitments can influence my timing. Let’s say I’m working long hours during the week and have unavoidable commitments on Sundays. So … I’m going to inoculate the must with yeast on a Saturday, and the following Saturday I’m going to press, regardless of what the hydrometer says. If I was a professional winemaker, I’d press exactly when the hydrometer says to, but I’m not so I don’t always have that luxury.

But, as I said, 1 week is often fairly accurate for fermentation to progress to a point where I can press or do a first racking.

3 Weeks?

The wine is not often 100% done fermenting when pressed, so there is some activity over the next few days. Waiting 3 weeks meant that the fermentation was 99.9% likely to be done, the gross lees (grape solids) would drop and compact, so the wine was ready to rack off the lees. Without a hydrometer, this timing made perfect sense.

I’ve read studies which state that the fruit solids begin decomposition after settling, so it’s valuable to separate the gross lees from the wine relatively quickly. One study said that decomposition starts within 1 day, but my experience indicates that either that is wrong, or it doesn’t hurt the wine to leave the lees in contact with the wine for 1 or 3 weeks.

My compromise is to perform this racking at the 5 to 10 day mark. Fermentation finishes, gross lees drop, and the lees compact. Some lees will always be “fluffy”, but a lot compacts down to a solid layer that doesn’t disturb easily. Racking at this time reduces the amount of wine lost as it’s mixed in the lees and discarded.

Available free time affects this timing as well. If I’m working long hours during the week, I’ll rack at the 7 day mark if the wine looks ready. If it doesn’t, then I wait a week.

3 Months?

At this point wine contains a lot of dissolved CO2, residue from fermentation. The wine will not fully clear until degassed as the CO2 holds solids in suspension. Waiting 3 months lets the wine degas naturally and clear. The lees formed here is “fine lees”, composed mostly of dead yeast cells. Extended contact doesn’t hurt the wine, and in fact, the sur lie technique is letting white wine have extended contact with the fine lees (up to a year) to develop more complex flavors.

At the end of this period the wine is racked off the fine lees, then bottled.

Most wines will be degassed by this point and can safely be bottled. Some of the guys that taught me started wines in early September and were drinking it in January, so bottling was a priority.

However, while wine can be bottled at this point, that does not mean it should be bottled. It’s common for the wine to continue to drop fine lees in the bottle. This is harmless, but not visually appealing. Waiting another few months reduces the likelihood of sediment in the bottle.

Wine kit manufacturers get around this by directing the winemaker to manually degas the wine after the second racking, by stirring vigorously. This drives off the bulk of the CO2 so the wine begins clearing sooner. After this a fining agent is added, which causes the sediment to drop. This enables kit wines to go into the bottle in as little as 4 weeks from the start.

What do I do?

My method has morphed over years, as recently as a couple of years ago. I now manually degas all wines after the second racking by stirring with a drill-mounted stirring rod. I usually degas for 2 to 3 minutes, changing drill direction every 30 second.

Why? Because my wine clears faster and in the long term means less work for me.

Depending on the wine I may add a fining agent, but in any case I rack again in 1 to 3 weeks, when I have enough sediment buildup to justify it. The wine may continue to drop sediment, but if I used a fining agent this is minimal. Conventional wisdom says to rack every 3 months, but if there is no sediment, I’ll let it go longer.

This is the point I add oak adjuncts (chips, cubes, etc.) if I’m going to.

I may bottle the wine at the next 3 month interval, or I may not. If oak is involved, I remove the oak and bulk age longer. Some folks bulk age wines for 12 to 24 months.

Conclusions

There is no perfect process to use in wine making, but there are many good processes. We have to adjust to whatever the current situation is and make it work. In my opinion, this is why the “why” of winemaking is more important than the “what” or the “how”. When we understand why we do things, we can better adapt when the situation requires.