The arid Columbia Valley is a perfect place to grow malbec grapes, and Washington wine drinkers are beginning to appreciate the delicious red.
THE MOST EXCITING development in the Washington wine industry the past few years has been the emergence of malbec.
Best known as a blending grape in its native Bordeaux, malbec plays a major role in Argentina, making it the most important wine grape in South America.
In Washington, we have seen cabernet sauvignon emerge as our most prolific and important grape, as interest in merlot has waned and syrah’s rise has slowed. In the midst of this has been the inexplicable rise of malbec, a grape of little importance in California and France.
Three malbecs to try
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Malbec, Rattlesnake Hills, $28: An enjoyable red with sunny fruit, herbal layering, a sense of place, prickly spice and exceptional length. From a top Idaho producer using Yakima Valley grapes.
Waterbrook Winery 2013 Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley, $22: A beautiful and affordable example of a Washington malbec. Rich fruit, firm acidity and incredible length. Enjoy with grilled meats or dishes with a rich sauce.
Obelisco Estate 2012 Malbec, Red Mountain, $45: Made from estate grapes from Red Mountain, this is consistently one of my favorite malbecs each year.
Here we talk about the importance of climate, and the vast and arid Columbia Valley would seem perfect for malbec. It’s a midseason ripener, typically harvested in early October, after merlot and before cabernet.
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Like syrah, malbec shows a transparency of place, reflecting its regionality well. Thus, a Red Mountain malbec will taste entirely different from one from Horse Heaven Hills or the Wahluke Slope.
Today, no fewer than 100 examples of malbec are being made in Washington, a remarkable shift in a short period of time. Wineries such as Mercer Estates in Prosser are focusing on malbec and are producing several versions.
Last year, I was leading a wine seminar about Red Mountain at Semiahmoo Resort near Blaine. We tasted some great cabs before a malbec from Col Solare. On first sip, the room went silent, then burst with buzzing. It was one of the most profound and memorable wines I tasted in 2016.
What makes Washington malbec so good? It’s a combination of factors: First is the rich, ripe, dark fruit with telltale notes of black pepper. The structure is based upon acidity rather than tannin, which gives it better approachability and intriguing aging possibilities.
Argentine imports are the biggest roadblock for Washington malbec. Ironically, that’s the same issue domestic syrahs had with Australian shirazes. Already, Washington malbecs have proved they compete for quality and price with the high-end Argentine wines. The next step is for Washington to increase plantings, which will lower the cost per ton and help the state compete at the midrange and low end. We are already seeing this happen.
I am excited about the promise of Washington malbec and where it will go in the next half-decade.