KENNEWICK, Wash. — If anyone has gathered 111 examples of Malbec grown in the Pacific Northwest for a judging dominated by winemakers, drop us a note.
Otherwise, Great Northwest Wine Magazine made some history on Feb. 23 when it staged an overview of Malbec for a panel dominated by Columbia Valley winemakers.
Out of the 110 entries, the panel judged 15 examples as “Outstanding!” yet the vast majority of what they evaluated were excellent and worthy of enjoyment on World Malbec Day — Monday, April 17 — and beyond.
Two of those 15 were unanimous selections for “Outstanding!” and awarded the equivalent of a double gold medal. The No. 1 wine proved to be the Maryhill Winery 2019 Proprietor’s Reserve Malbec. It was a nearly even blend of Gunkel Vineyard, which is near the Goldendale, Wash., winery, and the Yakima Valley’s Tudor Hills Vineyard.
“Our Malbec has been doing really well,” said grower Sean Tudor. “We are actually starting a vineyard series wine with Maryhill because of the success. High elevation and cooler sites seem to be making really nice Malbecs.”
Sidebar: Northwest Malbec by the numbers
Looking back, the 2019 vintage holds a fair bit of charm among Northwest winemakers, and this Malbec judging reflected that as five of the top entries were harvested in 2019.
Because of the nature of the grape, this was not as difficult as other evaluations of Bordeaux reds. There were a variety of styles, often reflecting the growing region, and the profiles of most showcased the juicy profile of Malbec. Some displayed a compelling amount of extraction, a density of dark purple fruit, bright acidity and tension.
Walla Walla wine merchant Kaleigh Brook, who is preparing to sit for her Master Sommelier exam this spring, said, “Typicity is what we really scored highly — when we said, ‘This tastes how Malbec ought to taste.’ It wasn’t overcooked. The extraction was on-point. The tannins were in check. And a lot of the wines had great acidity and freshness.”
Walla Walla winemaker Danny Gordon noted the overall quality of entries.
“There were a number that were not what I would want to drink right now, but I thought, ‘In a couple of years, that wine could really be a star,’ ” he said.
Few of the Malbecs dragged along an assertive tannin profile that many consumers rightfully associate with other Bordeaux reds — particularly with Merlot grown in Washington state.
“The best Malbecs were the ones that best managed the tannins,” Brook said. “It’s not as easy of a grape to work with as some people think.”
Given proper site selection, growers seem to appreciate the grape, too, but it requires managing canopy and clusters.
“One thing with Malbec is it has no problem putting tonnage on,” Tudor says. “We have to be more aggressive thinning with Malbec than other varieties, and timing is key, as well.
“If we thin too early, the clusters tend to balloon up, which leads to inconsistent ripening on the cluster,” he continued. “It also will dull down those bright flavors we are looking for. Thin too late and you obviously jeopardize full ripeness. It’s a balance you have to find within your vineyard and adapt each year. It’s a very fun variety to grow, in my opinion.”
In Washington state, interest in Malbec continues to be on the rise. Harvest has increased by 50% since the 2015 vintage as Malbec came in as the No. 4 red variety from the 2021 harvest at 3,600 tons. That’s well behind third-place Syrah (20,975 tons), narrowly ahead of Cabernet Franc (3,330 tons) but unlikely to ever sidle up to its big Bordeaux brothers Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“Harvest for us is usually early to mid-October,” Tudor says. “It’s usually our second to last variety picked — right before Cab Sauv.”
In Oregon, it was interesting that Malbec (836 tons) also leaped over Cab Franc (778) in terms of production during the 2021 harvest, despite there being more acreage set aside for Cab Franc (323 to 273).
The University of Oregon’s Vineyard and Winery Report reflected that Malbec was harvested at 2.99 tons per acre in the “heat dome” vintage of 2021, while Cab Franc came in at 2.33 — nearly a half-ton less than the fire-plagued 2020 vintage. Washington no longer publishes that level of information. (Figures for the 2022 harvest were not available when this issue went to press on March 9.)
Growing regions with some elevation produced a number of the top Malbecs. That makes sense, considering vineyards in the Mendoza region of Argentina range from 2,600 feet to about 4,000 feet elevation, helping to account for the food-friendly brightness of the wines thanks to the acid-preserving altitude. Considering that, it makes sense for Idaho’s Snake River Valley winemakers to do well with vineyards that tickle 3,000 feet.
Three of the top entries were from the Walla Walla Valley, which is viewed as a region with moderate growing degree days. Same can be said of the Columbia Basin’s Royal Slope, which produced one of the top examples and has a reputation for acclaimed Malbec.
Among the top 15 wines of the judging, only two are sold for less than $30, and just one of those comes in as a “Best Buy!” — $20 or less.
Remarkably, this comparative tasting added another layer to the legacy of Gunkel Vineyard, the planting near the museum at Maryhill. Last October, the top-scoring wine of the 2022 Platinum Awards was a Gunkel Vineyard Grenache made by Columbia Gorge winemaker Rich Cushman for Mt. Hood Winery.
Panelists were Kaleigh Brook, advanced sommelier, The Thief Fine Wine & Beer, Walla Walla, Wash.; Danny Gordon, winemaker, Walla Walla; Katy Michaud, winemaker, Michaud by Naked Wines, Richland, Wash.; Philippe Michel, associate, Abeja, Walla Walla; Brad K. Smith, retired viticulture/enology instructor, Yakima Valley College, and certified sommelier/ marketing consultant, CellarDoorConsultants.com, Grandview, Wash.; and Gordy Venneri, co-winemaker, Neher Family Wines, Milton-Freewater, Ore.
Moderators included Ken Robertson, associate editor/columnist, Great Northwest Wine, Kennewick, Wash.
The blind judging took place at the Clover Island Inn — the official home of the Platinum Awards — in downtown Kennewick.
Review: Maryhill Winery 2019 Proprietor’s Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley $44
Review: Aluvé Wine 2019 Les Collines Vineyard Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $52
Review: Abacela 2018 East Hill Block Estate Reserve Malbec, Umpqua Valley $48
Review: Hat Ranch Winery 2020 Malbec, Snake River Valley $33
Review: Gård Vintners 2019 Lawrence Estate Malbec, Royal Slope $48
Review: Balboa Winery 2019 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $45
Review: Mosquito Fleet Winery 2019 SS Bailey Gatzert Malbec, Rattlesnake Hills $42
Review: Liberty Lake Wine Cellars 2020 Scooteney Flats Vineyard Malbec, Red Mountain $33
Review: Spoiled Dog Winery 2021 Malbec, Yakima Valley $28
Review: Five Star Cellars 2017 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $40
Review: Harbinger Winery 2017 Malbec, Wahluke Slope $30
Review: Snake River Winery 2021 Estate Malbec, Snake River Valley $20
Review: Page Cellars 2019 Malbec, Columbia Valley $47
Review: Blooms Winery on Whidbey Island 2016 Malbec, Washington State $32
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