Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows Vintners
When Allen Shoup was approached by Gilles Nicault, he knew he had his winemaker. The French-born Nicault had both international and Washington-specific experience, having made wine in the state since 1994 and as winemaker for Woodward Canyon since 1999.
“I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with masters,” says Nicault.It has also been a challenging learning experience. “You might think that there is some traditional way to make wine that is similar in the way everyone does it,” says Nicault, “but I know now that no winemaker is the same.
”For instance, says Nicault, Randy Dunn “likes really concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon, but also is against high alcohols, so I have to be very exact and pick on just the right day, as soon as the seeds turn brown and the stems begin to lignify.”
By contrast, Nicault sees Michel Rolland, one of the best-known winemakers in the world, as being more tolerant of maturation and willing to allow additional time to achieve ripeness. “He doesn’t like over-maturation,” says Nicault, “but I have more days to pick as he wants well-lignified and really brown seeds.”
Techniques vary in the cellar as well. Syrah specialist John Duval uses stainless steel tanks for fermenting, and often employs extended maceration as well as a rack-and-return process that removes the fermenting juice from the skins and then returns it. These techniques are designed to minimize harsh tannins by providing a gentle process of extraction.
Napa Valley veteran Philippe Melka is also after silky tannins, says Nicault, but achieves them differently. Some lots of his wine are fermented in steel and others in 400-liter oak barrels. Like Duval, Melka doesn’t rely on punch-downs or pump-overs to extract color and flavor from the skins, but instead rotates the fermenting barrels in order to be as gentle as possible.
Such different methods require a lot of flexibility and a variety of tools in the winery—which helps account for the multi-million dollar, incredibly well-equipped winery building outside of Walla Walla. “What I promised them,” says Shoup, “was that they would have no excuse from a production standpoint not to make great wines.”
But what about the fruit? After all, great wine (they say) is made in the vineyard, and each of the Long Shadows winemakers is famous for working with some of the world’s finest vineyards. The most consistent element at Long Shadows (besides Nicault and Shoup) is Columbia Valley fruit.
The winemakers are sometimes dismayed at the distances they have to travel, but as they visit the vineyards throughout the region they come to appreciate the varied mesoclimates and flavors each appellation can deliver.
“They’re all amazed at the quality of fruit here,” says Shoup.Philippe Melka, for example, says he was surprised by the “consistency of wine quality for all the appellations. I was thinking that Merlot grapes were the most expressive of this region … but I realized that most of the varieties are performing extremely well, from Cabernet, Merlot, through Syrah and Riesling.
”Duval also likes the qualities of Washington fruit. “The elegance and the more savory expression of Syrah have been a nice surprise,” he comments. “With eight vintages under our belt, I am no less excited by the prospect of making great Syrah at Long Shadows.
”The combination of fruit quality and vine youth appeals to the winemakers, who say they did not come to Washington with a preconceived formula of how to make wine here, but rather wanted to make wine here that reflected what they found in the fruit.
“I think all of them were excited by their early experiences with growers here,” observes Shoup. “While they didn’t come here to show Washington how to make wine, they also were amazed to find the vineyard owners to be open vessels of willingness about how to improve the quality of their fruit. The growers would learn from the winemakers, and the winemakers would learn from the growers.”
And learn they did.
“Each of them would say something different about what is the character of Washington wine,” says Nicault. “For me it is difficult to put a name on it, but I think most would agree that it has to do with the texture of the tannins—the heat of the day melts and ripens the tannins nicely and the cool nights help them keep freshness. I love the freshness of the fruit here. We get great flavors.”
THE LONG SHADOW VINTNERS WINES: