Is Malbec “the next big thing” in Washington state? More like Washington’s “next big niche.”
Last year in Washington, wineries crushed 1,800 tons of the red Bordeaux variety, putting it on a strong trajectory since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began measuring its production in 2007.
Already, Malbec is the No. 5 red wine grape in Washington, behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. In a relatively short period of time, it has surpassed Sangiovese.
Lots of Washington Malbec, but not a lot of production
Last year, we conducted a peer-group judging of Northwest Malbecs for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Frankly, we expected perhaps 35-40 entries. Were we ever wrong. We received 89 Malbecs to evaluate, of which 80 were from Washington. And we know we didn’t get all of them.
However, while we received a surprising number of Malbecs, they were small case productions. Overall, the judging represented just 17,502 total cases of Washington Malbec. The largest production came from Tagaris Winery, whose Eliseo Silva Malbec was 1,700 cases. Combined, winemaker Frank Roth’s three Tagaris entries totaled 2,074 cases. (Ironically, Roth’s Reserve Malbec was the smallest-production Malbec in the judging at just 24 cases.)
The top wine in the competition, Mercer Estates Winery‘s 2009 Spice Cabinet Malbec the Horse Heaven Hills, was a mere 32 cases.
So while there are a fair number of examples, the total wines are scarce. It’s likely to stay that way, according to three Washington wine experts we talked to.
Grower sees no demand for Washington Malbec
Todd Newhouse, owner of Upland Vineyards and Upland Estates Winery on Snipes Mountain, is bullish on the grape, as his 2007 Malbec won best in show three years ago at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival. His 2008 finished No. 2 in our Malbec judging last year.
Newhouse has 6 acres of Malbec on his historic site, and he sells grapes to Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla and Bunnell Family Cellar and Hogue Cellars, both in Prosser.
“I don’t see myself planting more anytime soon,” Newhouse said. “I don’t have anybody wanting me to plant it.”
He said the preference right now is for Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“Malbec’s not even mentioned,” Newhouse said.
Growth of Washington Malbec
If we look at the growth of Malbec in Washington based on harvest numbers since 2007, it has nearly tripled in tonnage. That would seem to indicate a strong, growing demand for the grape.
However, if we compare that with Washington Syrah during its first six years on the USDA reports, the now-maligned grape jumped from 800 tons in 1999 to 5,900 tons in 2004. Today, it has doubled since then to 11,800 tons.
“Two years ago, I thought this state was going to plant a lot of Malbec,” Newhouse said. “But until we get a big winery to commit to doing a single-varietal Malbec, I don’t think you’re going to see it jump a lot.”
Most Washington Malbec being blended into other wines
Today, the acreage simply isn’t there to support a large bottling of Malbec. Charlie Hoppes, owner/winemaker for Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, estimates Washington has 600 bearing acres of Malbec. That’s enough for about 100,000 cases of wine.
And that means as much as 80 percent of the Malbec being crushed in Washington is being blended away into other wines. Where does it go? Chateau Ste. Michelle‘s 2010 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is 225,000 cases. The wine includes about 2 percent Malbec, which is the equivalent of 4,500 cases. So a percent here and there can add up pretty quickly.
“I don’t see the big guys making a big bottling,” Hoppes said. “It’s just not going to happen. Nobody’s going to just go and plant 200 acres of Malbec with the hope that it works.”
Hoppes, Smasne gain reputations for Washington Malbec
Hoppes, former red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, might make more bottlings of Malbec than anyone in Washington. He produces a Malbec for his label, as well as for Gamache Vintners and Market Vineyards. And for Hamilton Cellars, he makes a Red Mountain Malbec, a Champoux Vineyard-designated Malbec, a Columbia Valley Malbec, a Malbec rosé, a fortified Malbec dessert wine and a Malbec-based blend.
“I think it has a healthy future,” Hoppes said. “But I’d be surprised if it got as big as Syrah.”
For his own label, Hoppes has grown his Malbec from 100 cases to about 600, and he doesn’t expect it to get much bigger anytime soon.
“If anything, we have a lot more success with Cab than with Malbec,” he said. “It’s a nice little niche.”
Robert Smasne, who owns Smasne Cellars in the Yakima Valley and makes wine for a number of clients, is carving out a reputation with Malbec.
“Malbec is a big seller for me,” he said. “Everyone likes the style. It’s not overoaked, it’s fruit-driven and food-friendly.”
Two years ago, Smasne made 150-200 cases of Malbec. Today, he’s making 1,500 cases for himself as well as Newhouse’s Upland label.
“Its growth is driven by small wineries,” Smasne said. “It will be interesting to see where it goes.”
Last year, Smasne brought in Malbec grapes from seven vineyards in six appellations. He’s particularly fond of Verhey Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills, a relatively cool site compared with the Horse Heaven Hills, and a new vineyard near the town of Roosevelt just west of the Horse Heaven Hills along the Columbia River.
Smasne said Malbecs from cool sites reveal more violet and spice components, while warmer sites show bigger, jammier flavors. Hoppes agreed, saying Washington Malbecs offer notes of black pepper, blackberry and black cherry. Our judging last year showed the same thing. Additionally, Washington Malbecs have higher acidity and modest tannins.
With the average price of a Washington Malbec weighing in at $29, the wine is going to appeal to adventurous wine lovers looking for something unusual.
Matt Albee says
Great reporting, Andy! I’m really enjoying the work you’re producing at Great Northwest Wine since its launch. Keep it up. I’m a little suprised to read that Todd Newhouse doesn’t see much demand for Malbec grapes. When my original Malbec source was sold, I had to hunt around quite a bit to find a new one. Same story in the 2011 vintage, when my new source in the HHH was frozen. Everyone was sold out. Luckily, Scott Williams at Kiona had some new Malbec just coming into production that year on Red Mountain. I never hear about Malbec grapes looking for a home at harvest, which can’t be said of other varieties. Joe Hattrup put in more Malbec last year at Sugarloaf Vineyard, albeit a small amount.
Andy Perdue says
Thanks for the note. Todd mentioned that he actually had 12 acres of Malbec but grafted half of it over to Muscat. It had been Muscat that he’d grafted to Malbec, but it wasn’t doing well viticulturally, so he switched it back.
I don’t think Malbec has any trouble finding a home at harvest. But there isn’t much extra demand, and nobody is going to do a big planting without a contract these days.
One part I didn’t get into here was the pressure that inexpensive Malbecs from Argentina put on domestic Malbecs that cost three times as much. Unless a big winery (Crest, CSM, Hogue, etc.) decides to make a 50-100k lot of Malbec that sells for $15 (as happened with Syrah), then Malbec isn’t likely to jump much. And to do that, a winery would need to crop the grapes much higher than the three tons it is comfortable with right now. The winemakers tell me that cropping it at five tons will hurt quality in a big way.
Matt Albee says
Yes, you’re absolutely right about the overall volume. All of my experience is with small production, both in the vineyard and at the winery.
Jeff Del Nin says
Malbec is doing well for our winery up in BC as well. It tends to ripen before or with merlot, but produces more interesting wines. For us, the Malbec is the best wine in the cellar every year, but we only make 150 cases at the moment, and it goes into our flagship Bordeaux Blend. However, we have planted more.
The bottom line about Malbec is this: if it produces truly exceptional wines and the wines are world class in Washington, then over a period of years, people’s resistance to Malbec will drop and they will embrace it. And that is true of any grape.
It is a sad day when wineries modify planting decisions and avoid planting the absolute best varietal in the best spot because they are worried about whether or not the general public can pronounce the grape. If the wine is world class, then the public need to be pushed hard so that they accept it.
Andy Perdue says
We’re definitely seeing an increase in Malbec production, as the article indicates. A few acres will continue to be planted here and there, according to our sources. We just won’t see Syrah-like increases that we witnessed a decade ago. I suspect a lot of folks learned their lessons.
Jeff Del Nin says
Update: Just thought I would post an update: we decided to release a varietal Malbec from 2011. We feel it is the best wine our company has ever produced (and we have won over 50 gold medals in international competitions and also produced a syrah that was red wine of the year in Canada). Malbec has a future in the pacific northwest, but it is NOT very winter hardy.
Tuck Russell says
A year or two ago, the USDA data showed that Malbec was the most expensive grape in the state. I think that has changed, but it’s still pretty expensive compared to other varietals. It would be interesting to see how many South American Malbecs at the $30 price point compare in a tasting against Washington Malbecs. Right now, my impression is they have us beat on QPR below that price point.
Andy Perdue says
You are correct. Malbec is one of the most expensive grapes, averaging $1,474 last fall. They actually were exceeded by Grenache ($1,555) and Mourvedre ($1,585). The latter two varieties hit the USDA chart for the first time last fall.
I chatted with Charlie Hoppes about the reserve Malbecs from Argentina, which rarely make it out of the country. It would be interesting to see how Washington’s Malbecs fare against the best from Argentina.