Lately, it seems, every time I taste a few Washington Malbecs, they make an impression. Last week, the fresh and vibrant Olsen Yakima Valley 2008 struck me as a stylish mouthful of plum, pepper and savory meat notes, finishing with refined tannins. The lively and refreshing RiverAerie 2008 from Columbia Valley fruit hit me with juicy red berry and red plum flavors and a hint of savory meat as the finish rolled on silkily. It had presence and wrapped itself around the palate nicely.
In the past year, I slapped 90-point ratings on each of these wines:
• Reininger Malbec Walla Walla Valley Pepper Bridge VIneyard 2007, an open-framed wine with currant and bay leaf flavors that remain ripe and appealing through the generous finish;
• Fidelitas Columbia Valley 2008, vivid, focused and distinctive for its dark plum and mineral flavors, revving up nicely over refined tannins;
• Novelty Hill Columbia Valley Stillwater Creek Vineyard 2008, plush, generous and impressive for its dense blueberry and currant flavors, spicy nuances and rich finish.
See a pattern here? The wines tend to be supple and inviting, and they present flavor profiles that reshuffle the deck of Cabernet and Merlot. The wines come out with a freshness and plushness that combines charm with depth.
This Malbec movement has been going on for a while, but the phenomenon is limited enough to be flying below the radar. In my tasting database, I found only 50 Washington Malbecs sampled over the past eight years. Nearly all of these are produced in quantities of less than 500 cases. According to the most recent statistics, Washington has only 1,000 acres of Malbec in the ground, compared with 27,600 of Cabernet Sauvignon, 24,800 of Merlot and 10,000 of Syrah.
One warning sign is that the average price is around $30 to $35 a bottle. That's a reflection of the grape price, which in 2009 was $200 a ton higher than Cabernet Sauvignon and $400 higher than Merlot. That puts Washington Malbec at a disadvantage if you compare it with Malbec from Argentina, where examples abound of good, even outstanding, wines at $15 and under, and great wines from old vines at $40 and up. Washington's vines are recently planted, so the wines can't have the depth and complexity that comes with vine age.
But Malbec shows promise, so much that one would expect more vintners to jump in. For Washington Malbec to catch on, someone would have to take on the varietal as its champion. So far, everyone involved seems to be dabbling in it as an alternative. Olsen, Reininger, Fidelitas and Novelty Hill are known for their Cabs and Syrahs. RiverAerie is Bunnell Family Winery's label for small-lot experimental wines from their home vineyard, sold mostly at the winery.
The parallels with Syrah are intriguing. Washington makes some great Syrahs, and I still think it can be the state's calling card, but it wasn't until specialists such as McCrea and Cayuse pushed the top end and big wineries such as Columbia Crest made enough volume to get the varietal out there that anyone paid attention. Syrah also filled a vacuum, a red wine alternative to Merlots and Cabernets that long dominated Washington's output. There is less incentive to come up with another alternative.
Syrah still struggles to achieve the place it deserves in the market, largely because the grape is out of fashion. No problem with the fashionability of Malbec. Argentina has made it into a darling of the current wine world. But here's the problem: So was Syrah when Washington started to ramp up production. America was dazzled by Australian Shiraz and gaga over Northern Rhônes. I am guessing that much of the state's reluctance to plant lots of Malbec has something to do with being twice shy after getting burned with too much Syrah.
Three or four years down the road, will Malbec go the way of Syrah in the marketplace, and a lot of really good wines fall out of fashion from overexposure? I can understand why Washington vintners would stand pat with their highly successful Cabernets and Merlots and just dabble in Malbec while waiting for Syrah to catch on as it should.
But a guy can hope, and I would love to see what would happen if a dedicated vintner took on Malbec as a prime effort.
Brandon Redman — Seattle, WA — May 25, 2011 10:40am ET
Richard Lee — Napa — May 25, 2011 12:01pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 25, 2011 12:28pm ET
Michael Neeley — Everett, WA — May 25, 2011 3:17pm ET
Brandon Redman — Seattle, WA — May 25, 2011 3:30pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — May 25, 2011 10:56pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — May 26, 2011 11:46pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 27, 2011 4:49pm ET
Mace D Howell Iii — fremont,ca,usa — June 9, 2011 12:53pm ET
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