Is Malbec Washington’s next big grape? Unlikely

By on February 28, 2013
Washington wine

Upland Vineyard on Washington’s Snipes Mountain has 6 acres of Malbec. Owner Todd Newhouse’s 2007 Malbec won best in show three years ago at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

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

Washington Malbec

Washington Malbec has risen from 700 to 1,800 tons in six years.

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.

Washington Malbec

The first six years of Syrah (red line) being measured separately by the U.S. Department of Agriculture far outstripped Washington Malbec (red line) during the same time period.

“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

Washington Malbec

Charlie Hoppes is owner of Fidelitas Wines. He also makes wines for several other wineries, including Hamilton Cellars. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

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.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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