Malbec: This red grape is climbing the charts of Washington wine
By Ken Robertson
Malbec may have a rather short history in Washington state, but recent vintages show this red grape, which originally comes from France’s Bordeaux region, is establishing a record of excellence since 2011.
If you comb through the index to the 2005 edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, you’ll find plenty about Malbec production in France and Argentina, but not a single mention of any Northwest state or province.
Malbec first showed up in surveys of Washington grape plantings in 1999, when 50 acres were recorded. By 2011, there were 378 acres, with a yield of 1,300 tons. By 2015, the latest numbers available, that had jumped to 2,400 tons. I could not find a more recent acreage total, but if 2011 yields are typical, the 2015 tonnage would indicate that about 700 acres of Malbec were harvested in 2015.
Almost from the first harvests, Washington grape growers and winemakers discovered that Malbec could yield stunning results.
So stunning that Malbec has surged to No. 5 among red wine grapes harvested in Washington. And though it usually takes a few harvests for growers and winemakers to figure out just what works best in each vineyard and winery, Malbec quickly established itself not only as an excellent single varietal but also as the great blending grape to add color, depth and character to superb Bordeaux-styled red blends. A handful of wineries have even made a Malbec rosé.
Among the most enthusiastic advocates for Malbec are Rob and Rachel Mercer of Mercer Estates Winery in Prosser, who grow Malbec in their Spice Cabinet Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) and in their more recently planted site near Sundale, west of Roosevelt.
For that roughly 1,200-acre site, called “The Burn,” the Mercers hope to obtain federal approval for a new AVA because it differs both in climate and soils from the nearby Horse Heaven Hills and because it’s outside of the neighboring AVA.
“We’ve been planting Malbec like crazy,” Rachel said. They started their Malbec plantings with Spice Cabinet, then more recently added 50 acres in The Burn because of its great location, which includes a more moderate climate than some of Mercer’s Horse Heaven Hills vineyards.
“Rob has big plans for Malbec,” she added. “He’s super passionate about Malbec.”
Even with the increasing interest, ramping up to add more Malbec vines and produce more wine takes time, since a newly planted vine does not reach full production until its fourth year.
By the 2015 harvest, Malbec had reached No. 5 among Washington’s red wine grape production, but still lagged far behind Cabernet Sauvignon at 47,400 tons, Merlot at 35,200 tons and Syrah at 16,000 tons. But it was just 1,000 tons behind Cabernet Franc’s 3,400 tons.
The judging results from Northwest wine competitions show a surge in both Malbec’s popularity and quality. For example, when I worked as a judge at Wine Press Northwest’s Annual Platinum Judging in 2009, only two Malbecs found their way into the top tier of the 85 wines that won Double Platinum or Platinum awards. Both were from the 2007 vintage.
For the 2016 Platinum judging, there were two Double Platinum Malbecs and 12 Platinum Malbecs. In 2017, the same competition recognized seven Malbecs as worthy of Platinums, including one Malbec rosé. All of the 2017 winners were from grapes grown in Washington.
The Platinum winners those two years came from the Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope, Walla Walla Valley, Lake Chelan, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills and Ancient Lakes AVAs.
Thus Malbec, in roughly a decade’s time, has proved itself to be hardy in a broad array of climates, soils and vintages. And, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, capable of producing top-flight wines.
That versatility has not gone unnoticed outside of Washington. When Wine Press Northwest conducted a 2017 tasting of Malbecs from across the Northwest, 102 wines were entered, with vintages ranging from 2009-2015.
The results: 6 were awarded Double Gold medals, 22 Gold medals. Those top 28 wines again came from a broad array of Northwest AVAs, from Southern Oregon to Lake Chelan, from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley in Idaho to the Umpqua Valley in Oregon. But most of the grapes that went into the winners came from AVAs that fall within 75 miles of the Tri-Cities, the agricultural center for the region that grows Washington’s greatest wine grapes.
In both the 2016 and 2017 Platinum events and the 2017 Malbec tasting, I served as a panel moderator, which allowed me to hear and take notes on the observations of an array of judges. They ranged from two who have judged internationally for decades, to academics involved in two of the region’s top post-secondary programs for viticulturists and winemakers, along with Northwesterners who work every day within the industry.
As a group, they came away from these tastings impressed by the varying styles winemakers had crafted, from lighter and softer, easy-drinking reds to hefty, dark purple, complex and substantial wines. Many of them are pretty affordable, starting at about $16, with several of the best-rated wines priced right around $20. And yes, you can spend $60 on a Malbec, but that was the top price in the field of 102 entries in the Wine Press Northwest Malbec judging.
That $60 price tag is admittedly more than many want to spend, even on a fine red wine, but when compared with the most expensive Cabernets and red blends, which can cost well above $100, that Malbec seems almost affordable.
Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Washington wine and writing about it since 1978. He also works as a wine judge.
Finding Malbec wines can be challenging, but here are several to look for.
Finding red wines made from the Malbec grape can be challenging because Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and red blend bottlings dominate grocery store shelves. In addition, as Washington’s No. 5 ranked red wine grape by tons harvested, Malbec isn’t nearly as available.
Even wine shops may have limited selections, partly because many wineries produce rather small bottlings of Malbec, often targeting them for their wine club members, with small amounts left over for the general public.
So, check a winery’s online sales site, head off for a tasting room visit or get to know your wine shop owner and ask to be notified when exemplary examples arrive.
Here are some examples, some of them reasonably priced, that you’ll be happy to serve even your pickiest wine-loving friends:
Maryhill Winery — 2014 Malbec, Columbia Valley, $24: Maryhill is the state’s largest producer of Malbec and among the more affordable. In addition, winemaker Richard Batchelor consistently makes excellent wines.
If you go to the Maryhill tasting room just off Highway 14 outside Goldendale, you’ll find a broad array of reds and whites, all with Batchelor’s knack of turning grapes into gold medals. maryhillwinery.com, tasting room 9774Highway 14, Goldendale, WA. (877) 627-9445.
Mercer Estates — 2015 Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $25: Made from grapes grown in Mercer’s aptly named Spice Cabinet Vineyard, this could be the poster child for Washington Malbec with its blackberry, plum, spice and mint aromas, then blackberry, plum and cocoa flavors. Mercer and Malbec may be the new M&M twins. mercerwine.com, tasting rooms at 3100 Lee Road, Prosser, WA. (509) 786-2097, and 6235 Airport Way #2, Seattle, WA. (206) 717-7387.
Harbinger Winery — 2013 Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $28: Drawing on grapes from Weinbau Vineyard, Olympic Peninsula winemaker Sara Gagnon built another excellent Malbec that reveals blueberry and plum with hints of coffee and smoke, plus spot-on oak and savory black olive notes. harbingerwinery.com, 2558 Highway 101 West, Port Angeles, WA. (360) 452-4262.
Hamilton Cellars – 2012 Champoux Vineyards, Horse Heaven Hills, $60. This reserve wine was crafted using the first Malbec grapes harvested from the famed Champoux Vineyards. Aged for 22 months in 50% new French oak barrels, the wine has a distinct peppery spice nose with flavors of rich, dark fruit. The oak contributes subtle vanilla notes and a great mouth feel. hamiltoncellars.com, 55410 N. Sunset Rd., Benton City, WA. 99320. (509) 628-8227.
Latah Creek Wine Cellars — 2016 Rosé of Malbec, Ancient Lakes, $13: Natalie Conway Barnes, who has succeeded her father Mike Conway as winemaker, brought in grapes from Familigia Vineyard near George and crafted them into a bright pink rosé with strawberry, cherry and red currant aromas and flavors, plus bright acidity. latahcreek.com, 13030 E. Indiana Ave., Spokane, WA. (509) 926-0164.
Smasne Cellars — 2012 Three Vineyard Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley, $50: Robert Smasne has a long record of producing Malbec that stretches back to 1998, and his experience shows in this wine’s aromas of blueberry, plum, vanilla and spice, plus flavors of cherry and currant, with blackberry pie on the finish. smasnecellars.com, 500 Merlot Drive, Prosser, WA. (509) 786-0060.
Seven Bridges Winery — 2013 Kolibri Vineyard Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley, $32: Bringing in grapes grown just south of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Cold Creek Vineyard, winemaker Bob Switzer of Portland turned his four barrels of Malbec into a gold medal winner.
Lush black fruits, root beer, flint and cinnamon predominate in a wine of immaculate balance. You may have to slip across our southern border to find this one, but it’s rooted firmly in one of Washington’s oldest grape-growing areas on the northwest side of Rattlesnake Mountain. sevenbridgeswinery.com, 2303 N. Harding Ave., Portland, OR. (503) 203-2583.
Tsillan Cellars — 2014 Estate Winemaker Select Malbec, Lake Chelan, $36, and 2014 Estate Malbec, Lake Chelan, $34: Winemaker Shane Collins produced a pair of exceptional wines with this vintage. The Winemaker Select sports black cherry and blueberry fruit, plus black pepper and porcini mushroom notes; its sister wine shows dark purple fruit featuring black currant and blueberry, plus chai spices. tsillancellars.com, 3875 Highway 97A, Chelan, WA. (509) 682-9463.
Chateau Ste. Michelle — 2014 Limited Release Malbec, Columbia Valley, $38: The winemakers of Chateau Ste. Michelle combined fruit from legendary Cold Creek Vineyard and Canoe Ridge Vineyard, then added a dollop of fruit from Indian Wells to make this geographically diverse wine. It’s a winner with its rich, jammy dark fruit flavors and aromas, plus a dash of warm spices. ste-michelle.com, 1411 NE 145th St., Woodinville, WA. (800) 267-6793.
Barnard Griffin — 2014 Malbec, Columbia Valley, $45: After more than 40 vintages of crafting Washington wines, Rob Griffin has everything well in hand when he turns grapes into wine. The results always seem to be immaculately balanced and this Malbec is no exception, with beautiful dark fruit, judicious use of oak, and a finish that leaves the sipper reaching to pour a little more. barnardgriffin.com, 878 Tulip Lane, Richland, WA. (509) 627-0266.
Coyote Canyon — 2012 GW Smith Malbec Reserve, Horse Heaven Hills, $38: Owner and grape grower Mike Andrews has spent his life in the Horse Heaven Hills and his enthusiasm for the grapes he grows on his family’s historic homestead lands shows in all his wines. This one is big and bold with brilliant fruit aromas led by black cherry and blackberry, plus a bonus of leather. On the palate, the same fruit resolves into an elegant drink with intricate texture. coyotecanyon.com, 357 Port Ave., Studio A, Prosser, WA. (509) 786-7686.