Monday, August 29, 2011

A Decade Forging Excellence: Marie-Eve Gilla & Forgeron Cellars

The world of Washington wine certainly fits the "it takes all kinds" cliche with its brash personalities, humble legends, overnight success stories and wanna-be "rock-stars." Among the most consistent, experienced and talented of this group is one of the nicest people in Washington wine, Marie-Eve Gilla. As Walla Walla's Forgeron Cellars prepares to celebrate their 10th crush when the 2011 fruit is harvested, I got a chance to visit with Marie-Eve on her thoughts about what makes Washington a special place for wine, and how women winemakers have made their mark on Washington wine.

In her 10th crush at Forgeron Cellars, and with experience at Covey Run, Hogue, and Gordon Brothers, Marie-Eve has spent nearly 20 years learning about the Washington wine industry from the inside. From barrel washer to winemaker at Covey Run to one of the owners and head winemaker at Forgeron, Marie-Eve has watched this state's wine industry evolve. "Washington's young at 30 years (she's from France, remember) and so it doesn't face a lot of constraints. Free enterprise and experimentation are the ethos." This enterprising wine culture is complimented by a perfect set of conditions. Marie-Eve describes Eastern Washington as a winemaker's paradise, with dry, hot summers that get the fruit ripe and keep the pests and disease away.

Marie-Eve notes that there are seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to wine that can be grown in Eastern Washington. While Forgeron planned its beginnings around traditional, and somewhat safe Bordeaux varietals, the variance and high quality that Washington climate allows provided Marie-Eve with creative opportunity to experiment. It took the leverage of her Burgundian background and a bit of pleading to have Chardonnay added to the Forgeron portfolio. Ironically if you created a shortlist of quality Washington Chardonnay, Forgeron Cellars would be high up on that list (top five, in my opinion). "I think white wines do not see the attention and love they deserve in Eastern Washington." A trip to the Rhone in 2004 and an appreciation for Roussanne had her wondering if she could make it back in Washington. "I came back and decided to give it a shot and voila! I made Roussanne for many years, as well as Marsanne." Forgeron Cellars now makes a unique Southern Rhone style white blend called Ambiance, with Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.

As Marie-Eve watched the success of varietals across the state, she was on hand at Gordon Brothers in 1996 when Syrah was considered a daring varietal and she has continued to pursue the varietal with success at Forgeron Cellars. It was in that first crush in 2001 that Marie-Eve also decided to make Zinfandel...from Washington. Expert advice from a California wine making friend though was especially helpful: "add the yeast and pray." That Zinfandel has become a Washington favorite with a loyal following.

With all her experience in the evolution of Washington wine, Marie-Eve is excited about what's still to be learned. "Washington is still in its infancy...still defining its style. There are plantings on North and Eastern oriented slopes, and limited air draining sites." Marie-Eve is confident though that history will determine who got it right, saying, "It's not simply enough to plant a vineyard and assert it's superiority." Some truths have become evident for her and the style of fruit she's interested in. She's found Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope provide a great setting for Zinfandel and Cabernet, lending a consistency from vintage to vintage regarding heat and the necessary ripeness. In the Yakima Valley she finds a beautiful set of conditions for white varietals as well as for Merlot and Syrah since the latter two require a little more hang time that won't cook the fruit. Finally, she's found that the uniquely bold characteristics the Walla Walla Valley imparts to Cabernet and Syrah have also proven part of her formula for success. In addition to sites, growers have also risen to the top and she relies consistently on the skill of the likes of Dick Boushey, Ted Wildman (Stonetree Vineyard) as well as the Sagemoor group and the Olsen Family Vineyards.

As one of the matriarchs of the women making wine in Washington, Marie-Eve believes that she and her counterparts have a few things in common. As the scene has become more competitive as more and more women have become successful, there is a definite tendency to be supportive of one another and stick together. As for generalities regarding what kind of wine she feels women tend to make? "As a general statement, I think women look more for balance when drinking wine and this applies to women as winemakers making their wines, down to earth, solid wines, easy to enjoy and able to age. These wines might not show as well in a large grouping of wines where palate fatigue sometimes lead tasters to select bigger, bolder wines and that is probably why women do not always seem to fare as well as men in wine publications."

The Forgeron Cellars Upcoming and New Releases:

The 2006 Zinfandel (last year's release) was a real favorite of mine among all of the wines I tasted in 2010. The 2007 rendition is a lot more dark and brooding right now and big. Darkest of fruit elements including plums and raisins and some herbal notes on a long lasting finish. Lots of complexity but it doesn't hit the spice and clove notes of last year's release. (Not yet released.)

The 2009 Chardonnay demonstrates the consistency and the quality of this varietal in the hands of Marie-Eve. An example of balancing the acidity and the full bodied elements of a Burgundian style. Aromatics take off right away with apricots and peaches, the bright fruit elements continue through the palate with tropical fruits and zesty acidity balanced by a full roundness on the wine. ($25)

The 2008 Les Collines Syrah is a stunner. This wine is a beautiful example of what one of the state's best vineyards can do. A thinking man or woman's Syrah with aromatics of smoke and earth, the palate is graced by a meatiness and herbaceaous quality that I find in many of the better Walla Walla Syrahs. Blackberries linger on a finish that can be measured in minutes not seconds. This wine is really dynamite and highly recommended. ($46)
These wines were provided as samples.


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