How To Siphon And Rack Wine
Some years ago, I received a phone call from my brother. He was obviously “sloshed.” Between some giggles and slurred words, he asked me, “Ian, how do you start a siphon?”
I didn’t know at the time why he wanted to know how to siphon something – especially when he was so obviously tipsy. So I asked him why. Again, in between giggles and other signs of insobriety, he told me that he had started some wine and was trying to rack it from the primary fermenter to a carboy.
While trying to do so, he gulped wine as he sucked the siphon tube but could never get a flow of the wine going into the carboy. So over and over he tried, each time taking a big swallow of wine – nasty wine at that it must have been with all of the yeast and stuff still in suspension.
In checking my referrer logs, I’ve seen a lot of clicks from search engines with search terms such as “racking wine.” This evening, I noted one referrer with the search term “How to siphon wine from the primary to carboy.” It seems to me that there may be a lot of folk who really don’t know the fine art of siphoning! I learned it from my Grandfather when I was a little boy. He needed to siphon some fuel out of his vehicle gas tank as he had none left for the lawnmower. At the time, I was fascinated with the idea that a liquid could flow upwards, and then back downwards into another container. It was like magic to me. Indeed, my own six year old was fascinated with how liquids could flow up a tube and then down into another container without any mechanical assistance.
When you are racking wine, other than the containers needed, there are four items that you should have that go together to make your siphon. You may have purchased them separately and need to put them together, or the shop where you purchased your kit from may have put it all together for you. Hopefully they asked you if you had the equipment. If you don’t have this, try and get it before racking your wine.
First, you will have a racking wand. This is a stiff plastic tube with a bend at one end. Second, you should have about 6 feet of food grade plastic hose, that when gently heated with hot water at one end, will fit over the opening of the racking wand. You will want this to fit over the racking wand end that is bent in an “L” shape.
Attached to the long straight end of the racking wand should be a cap like thingamajig (I have no idea what the name of it is). This thing ensures that the wine being racked from the primary is taken from above, rather than directly into the racking wand tube. This assists in sucking up as little of the lees or sediment as possible. You can rack without one of these caps, but unless you are very skilled, you’ll likely also transfer alot of the sediment that is on the bottom of the primary fermenter.
About 4″ from the end of the pliable plastic hose, there should be a clamp that you can squeeze to stop the flow of the wine if you need to.
Now, I’m not a scientist, so my explanation may not be technically correct, but siphons work due to gravity and atmosphere pressure (although this is debatable – some experiments have shown that siphons may work in a vacuum). Water based liquids will flow to the lowest point if the flow is started, and then continue to flow.
So, to start a siphon when racking wine, you need to ensure that the bottom of your vessel (in this example, the primary fermenter) you are siphoning from is at a higher level than the top of the vessel (in this case, the carboy) you are siphoning to, and that the discharge end of the siphon hose is at a lower level than the intake end of the siphon in order to have flow. With this in mind, ensure that the vessel you are siphoning from is on a table or counter top, and the vessel you are siphoning to is on the floor.
To get the siphon started, put the racking wand end of the siphon into the primary fermenter, so that the cap on the end is resting on the bottom. With practice, you will be able to do this without kneeling on the floor, but for now, if it is your first time getting a siphon started, get as low as you can with the discharge end of the siphon. Using your mouth, suck on the discharge end of the siphon, filling it with wine. Some say this is unsanitary – to use your mouth to start the siphon – but I’ve never had any problems with this.
At first, you’ll probably end up with a mouthful of wine. When the siphon hose is filled, engage the clamp on the hose. Move the discharge end to the carboy opening, then release the clamp. The wine will begin to flow into the carboy from the primary fermenter.
When the level of the wine in the primary approaches the intake of the siphon, you’ll want to have the intake end at one side, while tipping the primary fermenter at the other side. This will ensure that you get most of the wine siphoned, not leaving much behind. A small amount of the sediment may also get taken up and be transferred to the carboy, but that’s ok. It will eventually settle to the bottom of the carboy, along with the remaining suspended particles in the wine, and you’ll rack again.
You will end up with a bit less liquid than what you started with, and it’s important to “top up” the carboy with water or a similar wine so that there is only about an inch of head space between the wine and the carboy opening, where you’ll insert a bunge and airlock.
Of course, before doing all of the above, you should sanitize your carboy and the inside and outside of your siphon with a sulfite/water solution.
- Sanitize the siphon and carboy that you are racking into.
- Insert the racking wand end of the siphon into the primary fermenter
- With the discharge end of the siphon at a lower level than the height of the intake end of the siphon, begin sucking on the end of the discharge end of the siphon.
- When the wine has been sucked into the siphon and is at a lower height than the intake end, clamp the siphon shut.
- Put the discharge end of the siphon into the carboy opening.
- Open the clamp on the siphon to allow the wine to flow.
- When the wine level in the primary approaches the bottom, tilt the primary so the remaining wine has gathered in the area of the intake end of the siphon.
For those who have had problems starting a siphon, hopefully these instructions will help you stay sober when you are learning how to siphon!