Washington’s Secret Hit Varietal (Malbec)

Malbec is poised to become the state’s next breakout grape

Copyright 6.29.15 Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator

Through the 2008 vintage, I reviewed a grand total of two dozen Washington Malbecs. Early successes included outstanding ratings (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) for a 2005 from Barnard Griffin and 2006s from Novelty Hill and RiverAerie (the latter a no-longer extant second label from Bunnell Cellars).

Things started to show more promise with 2009. I found six outstanding wines among 22 from that vintage, including a spectacular wine called Preposterous by Sparkman winery. The 2010 Preposterous (94 points, $38) is the most impressive Malbec I’ve reviewed so far, a gorgeous mouthful of red berry and cherry flavors that show mineral, oak and herbal overtones, beautifully harmonized with refined tannins as the finish lingers extensively. (The 2011 is also pretty darn good.)

Intrigued, I wrote a blog post in 2011 suggesting that Washington Malbecs might be worth paying attention to. Four years later, I think they’re ready for their close-up.

The other day I faced a lineup of 20 Malbecs, mostly from the 2012 vintage, by far the most I’ve ever tasted in one sitting. These are crowd-pleasing wines. Across the board, their minimal tannins are polished, making for satiny textures. Flavors center on black cherry, plum and currant. The plushness achieves a sense of balance, more medium-weighted than most serious Washington wines. The best of them show a welcome transparency to go with their richness. Hints of cocoa, black pepper, wet earth and tar add nuances and create complexity.

In previous published reviews, even routine bottlings offer richness without overwhelming. The appealing fruit character seldom has to contend with overly herbal or vegetal notes, which can be an issue with a significant minority of Merlots and Cabernets in Washington.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion. Washington has found its way with Malbec. Wineries that have earned outstanding ratings in multiple vintages include Fidelitas, 14 Hands, Hestia, Lookout Point, Novelty Hill, Reininger, Seven Hills, Sparkman and Waterbrook. Though most of them produce only a few hundred cases for each bottling, Waterbrook bottles thousands, in both a regular and reserve.

State agricultural reports show that wineries pay growers more per ton for Malbec than for anything except Grenache. Malbec’s 2,200-ton production now stands fifth on the state’s red grape list, a figure that has more than doubled in five years. (Cabernet Sauvignon leads, followed by Merlot and Syrah.) Malbec stands just behind Cabernet Franc, and leads Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and Grenache. Today Washington also makes more Malbec than Viognier, Sémillon and Chenin Blanc.

This state made its reputation for reds when Washington Merlot became a thing in the 1980s, but then most of us realized its Cabernet Sauvignons were more consistently better. Syrah started to surge in the late 1990s. I still think Syrah makes the state’s most compelling wines, but Malbecs show some of the same traits, especially generosity of ripe fruit and supple textures. Don’t miss them.

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