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Serving Multiple Masters

February 2013
 
by Paul Franson
 
 

Long Shadows is a truly unique winery, and director of winemaking and viticulture Gilles Nicault faces a unique challenge: The winery in Walla Walla, Wash., is the result of a partnership between Washington state wine legend Allen Shoup and some of the most renowned winemakers in the world looking to make outstanding wine from Washington grapes. Nicault, who formerly worked at established star Woodward Canyon Winery, is charged with producing wines to the standards of Long Shadows’ demanding partners.

Shoup created Long Shadows in 2003 after a long career as head of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Washington’s largest wine company. While there, he also encouraged other vintners—and as a result, he knows the players and the properties well. The name of the winery could be considered a reflection of his impact on the Washington state wine business, for he does in fact throw a long shadow there.

He partnered with six winemakers and vintners to create six wines:

• Feather by Randy Dunn from California

• Pedestal by Michel Rolland from Bordeaux, France

• Pirouette by Agustin Huneeus and Philippe Melka from California

• Poet’s Leap Riesling by Armin Diel from Germany

• Saggi by Giovanni and Ambrogio Folonari of Italy

• Sequel by John Duval of Australia

Each wine is unique, reflecting the experience and preferences of the winemaking partner, but all use Washington grapes. In addition, Nicault makes Chester Kidder wines with Shoup.

Chester Kidder is named in honor of Allen Shoup’s grandfather, Charles Chester, and his grandmother, Maggie Kidder. Nicault makes an iconic Washington wine of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with small amounts of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Feather is created from a partnership with Napa Valley vintner Randy Dunn, famed for his Cabernet Sauvignon; Feather is made from Washington Cab. Dunn’s reputation for producing world-class Cabernet spans more than four decades. After making wines at Caymus Vineyards from 1975 to 1985, he established Dunn Vineyards on Howell Mountain, where he continues to craft distinctive wines.

Pedestal is a Merlot produced with Michel Rolland, the Pomerol vintner and widely traveled consultant to many of the world’s top wineries.

Pirouette is a classic Bordeaux-style blend made with Agustin Huneeus of Quintessa Vineyards in Napa Valley and consulting winemaker Philippe Melka of Melka Wines.

Poet’s Leap is inspired by the greatest wines of Germany and crafted by one of Germany’s most highly acclaimed Riesling producers, Armin Diel, proprietor of Schlossgut Diel in the Nahe Valley.

Saggi is crafted with one of Tuscany’s oldest and most prestigious wine families, Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, to produce a wine that showcases Washington state’s terroir with Italian character. Saggi (meaning “wisdom”) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Syrah.

Sequel is made with John Duval, formerly chief winemaker of Australia’s iconic Penfolds winery and its flagship wine Grange, as a continuation of his life’s work with Syrah.

Equipped for flexibility
The Long Shadows winery was completed in 2006. It sits in a dramatic location on a hill not far from booming Walla Walla.

The modern building is exceptionally well designed and equipped for winemaking, and it includes the equipment each winemaker specified: oak tanks for Rolland to ferment Merlot, open-top fermentors, small wood fermentors for Saggi, a hydraulic basket press for reds (they’re not really suited for whites as they let too much pulp through, notes Nicault) and closed-top fermentors for Riesling.

“We have the best equipment with a lot of tanks for flexibility,” admits Nicault. The facility has three barrel rooms: one for this year’s wines, one for last year’s and one for malolactic fermentation and case goods storage.

Each winemaker’s involvement varies, Nicault says, with some totally managing the process and others primarily leaving it to him after giving direction. Duval visits twice a year: once at harvest and again for blending. Rolland tends to visit in January, June and August—not during crush. Diel comes during the growing season, while Folonari visits in October.

Nicault mostly pumps over the reds, for example, but Duval prefers délestage (rack and return) twice per day initially, then delicate punch downs by hand. The Cabernet gets a bit rougher treatment, Nicault says.

Positive displacement pumps
Nicault believes that with the technology nowadays, gravity feed can be simulated with the right equipment. “For feeding the destemmer, we use belts and sorting tables instead of screws to preserve the integrity of the clusters and berries.”

He points out, however, that there are positive displacement pumps like the Francesca he uses at Long Shadows and his Waukesha pump, with its stainless steel head that creates a flow without beating up the wine.

“We also have a nitrogen cane that will pressurize the barrel with nitrogen and force the wine to flow under nitrogen with no mechanical action.” Nicault adds, “We believe in introducing oxygen and even using regular pumps during fermentation, but after that we are very gentle with the wine during the rest of its elevage.”

Nicault says the yeasts he uses depend on vintage, variety, sugar level, nitrogen level and type of wine. “For Riesling, we use a yeast that enhances the Riesling characteristics and that can be stopped before dryness if desired.”

For must with higher levels of sugar, he will choose a yeast that is more tolerant to alcohol, and if the must is unusually difficult to ferment, a yeast that has capabilities of strong fermentation.

Nicault has a Diemme Vintage 23 hydraulic press used for all red pressings. “It’s a very gentle and very sanitary way to extract the press wine. I firmly believe that it has allowed us to add a larger volume of press wine back to our free-run wine.”

He uses concrete eggs for white fermentation, but for red fermentation the egg is only about two-thirds full, so it’s just like fermenting in a regular concrete tank.

The Signature bottling line can fill 55 bottle s per minute.

In the vineyard
Grapes for the Long Shadows partners’ wines come from a number of vineyards, including the impressive Benches vineyards, which tower over the Columbia River not far from the winery.

Nicault likes to drop some fruit while doing shoot thinning before and after bloom, cluster thinning after set (if necessary), color thinning at veraison to even up the maturation and one more pass to reject any fruit with sunburn or other defects before harvest. “The final yield will depend on the growing season, the variety, the vineyard and the finished product we aim for,” Nicault notes.

He says there are times during the growing season when he doesn’t want the vines to struggle—such as at bloom, at veraison and when the days are in the 100°F range. “On the other hand, if the plant is healthy, we reduce the water after set to keep the berries and clusters smaller.”

He notes that in the middle of summer, when mid-day temperatures reach 100°-110°F, it is important to shade the afternoon sun side of the canopy and open it up later, when the temperature doesn’t spike as high. Otherwise, too much sun exposure can lead to sunburn and overproduction of phenols.

Nicault says he only picks riper fruit when it is necessary to achieve the right flavors and color development. “Last year, one of our most beautiful Merlots for Pedestal was harvested at only 24.3° Brix,” he reports. “Riper grapes are sometimes inevitable, but it is important to retain the balance of the wine and the freshness of the fruit.”

He says that when the maturation is optimum with brown seeds, he does some cold soaks on Merlot and Syrah for up to four days at 40°F. “I like to then warm up the must to 70°F to avoid a sluggish start of fermentation.”

Gilles Nicault has some of the biggest challenges facing any winemaker, as he works with some of the world’s best-known winemaking partners. It also gives him unique opportunities—and fortunately, he has the equipment and resources to match.

 
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