Toronto Star

From grape to glass: one wine’s journey

- Carolyn Evans Hammond

About 20 years ago, I tried to make wine. I went into one of those DIY winemaking shops where you rip open an envelope of yeast and pour it into a jug of grape juice. That, they insisted, was all I needed to do to make great wine. It would ferment, they would bottle it, and I’d pick up a case of delicious — and seriously cheap — wine.

The results were vile. I mean, really horrendous.

There’s a lot more to making good wine than that. Take for instance, 2013 J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, Calif. (Vintages 656561, $22.95). Its position as one of the bestsellin­g wines in Ontario is due largely to savvy winemaking — essentiall­y it’s the sum of about a hundred small decisions in the vineyard and winery.

I talked to Steve Peck, red-winemaker at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines to glean a few of his secrets. He’s in his ninth vintage there.

First off, Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon seasoned with Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The Cabernet Sauvignon offers flavours of black forest fruit and a velvety mouth feel. Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah infuse the wine with structural depth, intense colour, and aromas of violet and plum. Merlot yields a juicy note of cherry, edged with milk chocolate.

And Cabernet Franc adds fruity finesse.

In California — as in many other regions — the variety named on a label only needs to account for at least 75 per cent of the stated variety.

How the fruit is grown, of course, plays a huge role in the final wine.

“Assessing the site, preparing the land, and planting and cultivatin­g the vines are critical,” says Peck.

He uses certain pruning and irrigation techniques to achieve the right flavour.

Then, when the berries are fully ripe (the seeds have to be brown, not green), the fruit is picked, destemmed and crushed.

Then, each tank of crushed fruit is fermented. At J. Lohr Vineyards, they ferment each grape variety separately.

“To tease as much colour from the Cabernet Sauvignon while limiting tannin, I go for a hot fermentati­on early, which means adding the yeast and warming the juice to encourage a robust start to fermentati­on for maximum colour extraction,” says Peck.

“This approach lets pigments leach into the juice before alcohol is created; tannins don’t dissolve until alcohol is present.”

Tannins, which are found in the skin and pips of grapes, create a drying, grippy sensation in the mouth — often compared to oversteepe­d tea.

“We want you to know the tannins are there, but we don’t want them to beat you up, you know,” says Peck.

As the wine ferments, Steve tastes every vat of fermenting juice daily — 120 samples per day — and measures pigment and tannin levels in the lab to help him with the pressing decision.

Once each batch is pressed and transferre­d to a tank, Peck begins assembling the blend.

“I’ll start blending a week or two from pressing and, by Christmast­ime, we’ve got the blend,” says Peck. “The blended wine goes into barrels where it will age for a year.”

He uses 22 types of barrels from nine barrel producers to vary flavour. After one year, the barrel-aged wine goes into tanks, the wine is fined with a touch of gelatin and filtered to clarify it, stabilize it, and round out the flavour. Then (drum roll) it’s bottled. How does it taste? Check out my notes.

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