Just five years ago, few could have predicted that Malbec would be the next big thing in Washington.
Yet suddenly the red wine grape that is native to France and huge in Argentina is establishing itself as a favorite with winemakers and consumers alike in the Northwest. Our recent blind judging of Malbec attracted 89 examples.
Malbec is one of the six red wine grapes of Bordeaux, though it plays a supporting role compared with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In Argentina, Malbec is a star, with 50,000 acres planted. The Argentine Malbecs that are exported to the United States are inexpensive compared with Malbecs from elsewhere in the world, though the best examples, which rarely make it out of the country, tend to be pricier.
In our judging, a Malbec from Mercer Estates in Prosser finished No. 1. The grapes came from Spice Cabinet, a young estate vineyard overlooking the Columbia River in the southern Horse Heaven Hills. Spice Cabinet was planted in 2005, so this is just the third release of wines from this vineyard -- a sign that owner Rob Mercer has uncovered a superb location for red grapes.
Despite the growing number of Malbecs being made, most are bottled in small amounts, so they can be difficult to find. Ask for these examples from your favorite wine merchant, or contact the wineries directly.
Mercer Estates Winery 2009 Spice Cabinet Vineyard Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills, $30: This opens with aromas of ripe plums and blackberries, along with hints of cedar, Baker's chocolate and cinnamon bark. On the palate, it reveals flavors of chocolate, then quickly shows off cherries, plums, spices and blueberries, all backed with stunning acidity and modest tannins.
Upland Estates Winery 2008 Malbec, Snipes Mountain, $30: This distinctive wine offers exotic aromas of blueberries, cherries and spices, followed by exciting flavors of minerality and plums. It's a rich red backed with enticing acidity.
Five Star Cellars 2009 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley, $38: This opens with big aromas of black licorice, plums, lilac, Kona coffee and tar, followed by rich, plush flavors of cherries, chocolate and vanilla extract.
Hamilton Cellars 2008 Malbec, Columbia Valley, $30: This wine reveals complex aromas of minerality, mint, raspberries, tar, boysenberries and chocolate. On the palate, this offers juicy flavors of raspberries, white strawberries and black cherries. It's a smooth, easy-drinking wine with brilliant acidity and a lengthy finish.
Patterson Cellars 2009 Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $32: Here is an exotic wine with a hint of spices on the nose, followed by aromas of cherries, sweet pipe tobacco, pie cherries and red currants. On the palate, it is a lively wine with flavors of cherries, boysenberries and warm spices, all backed with silky tannins, bright acidity and a satisfying finish.
Airfield Estates 2009 Malbec, Yakima Valley, $28: This is a delicious red with aromas of minerality on the nose, along with notes of red and black fruit and orange zest. On the palate, it reveals flavors of dark cherries, blueberries, blackberries and dark chocolate, with a hint of black tea on the finish.
Milbrandt Vineyards 2009 The Estates Malbec, Wahluke Slope, $25: This includes 17 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Merlot in the blend to round out the edges. It opens with aromas of chocolate, coffee and blackberries, followed by rich flavors of opulent dark fruit, including blackberries and plums. Exotic spices meld with notes of chocolate for a long, smooth finish.
Obelisco Estate 2008 Estate Malbec, Red Mountain, $30: This is a beautifully balanced Malbec with refreshingly modest alcohol, no small trick from the warmest growing region in Washington. This is a big, smoky, bold wine with aromas of cherries and s'mores, followed by clean and elegant flavors of ripe cherries and plums.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.