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ARGENTINA IS the undisputed king of malbec.

The South American country has been making wine for nearly five centuries, and in the past 20 years, Argentine winemakers have turned malbec — a red grape that plays a supporting role in its native Bordeaux — into its national grape. Just as shiraz is synonymous with Australia, so is malbec with Argentina.

For generations, Argentine winemakers and grape growers in the high-altitude Mendoza region have been honing their vineyards, propagating cuttings from the best vines and passing knowledge from father to son.

Here in Washington, interest in malbec has skyrocketed in the past half-decade. But Washington winemakers are just getting to know their grapes.

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I wanted to understand where Washington malbecs stand on the world stage, so I turned to Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at Columbia Crest. He was born in Argentina and worked in Mendoza for many years before emigrating here. He concurred that Argentina’s focus on malbec gives its winemakers the clear advantage.

We put that premise to the test: Muñoz-Oca selected four Argentine malbecs that best represent the top-shelf efforts of Mendoza, and I chose four Washington malbecs that show the potential greatness of the Columbia Valley. We gathered a panel of judges with international experience and tasted the wines blind (we didn’t know which wines were which).

We were floored by the results, and Muñoz-Oca was astonished with just how evenly matched they were, describing all eight malbecs as world-class examples of the wine.

Here are the results:

1. (tie) Hamilton Cellars 2010 Champoux Vineyard malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $45: This wine is made with the first malbec grapes from one of the state’s top vineyards. It showed remarkable depth with notes of smoky purple fruit, dark chocolate and black pepper.

Mercer Estates 2010 Spice Cabinet Vineyard malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: Consistently the best malbec in Washington, this offered aromas of chorizo sausage and flavors of bold, purple fruit with understated tannins.

Columbia Crest 2011 reserve malbec, Columbia Valley, $30: Bottled just three weeks before it was tasted, this performed admirably, with hints of Tahitian vanilla, blueberry taffy and stunning black and purple fruits.

Fabre Montmayou 2008 Grand Vin, Lujan de Cuyo, $39: Made from century-old vines, this was the top Argentine wine. It provided stunning notes of dark fruit, black licorice and cardamom.

Upland Estates 2009 malbec, Snipes Mountain, $30: From the heart of the Yakima Valley, this is a sleek, sensual red revealing ripe dark fruit, black pepper and olive. Beautiful and viscous.

Trapiche 2008 Viña Cristina y Bibiana Coletto, Mendoza, $50: Hints of bacon, blackberry and sexy minerality.

Lindaflor 2005 Valle de Uco, Mendoza, $50: Rustic notes of boysenberry syrup backed with bold tannins.

Catena Alta 2009 Estate Rows malbec, Mendoza, $60: Overtones of saddle leather, black truffle and forest floor meld with flavors of blackberry and cocoa powder.

Though the wines were evenly matched with little space separating the top five wines, our malbec smackdown goes to Washington.

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at

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