Malbec has experienced a resurgence in popularity here in the Northwest and in Washington in particular. The wine has grown into quite the darling with those inside the wine industry, and it was featured in a 2010 Taste Washington seminar session that discussed the growing presence of this bold varietal. While it's certainly growing in popularity there is still a small number of acres planted: I found a 2008 Seattle Times article that quoted 700 acres, but the Washington Wine Commission notes 247 acres in an email the sent me when I asked the question. In either case, its a varietal that is relatively uncommon in the Northwest right now.
I wanted to explore a few of the Malbecs available in the northwest, and invited some friends over to suss out the subtleties that exist in four different wines from four AVAs, all from 2007. The Malbecs came from Walla Walla Valley (on the Oregon side), the Wahluke Slope, Horse Heaven Hills, and Yakima Valley.
The wines we tasted were kindly provided by Gilbert Cellars, Watermill Winery, Vin Du Lac and McKinley Springs. In so doing we will cover the Walla Walla Valley (Watermill Winery) and Wahluke slope (Gilbert Cellars)as well as the Yakima Valley (Vin du Lac) and Horse Heaven Hills (McKinley Springs) wines.
Walla Walla Valley is the Eastern most of Washington's AVAs, and it goes into Milton-Freewater, Oregon (yes, Oregon). Surprised? I was. Milton-Freewater is home to Watermill Winery, located in the historic Watermill building just 10 miles from downtown Walla Walla (they’re in good company in Milton-Freewater; Cayuse Cellars also calls it home). Watermill makes a great variety of wines from their estate vineyards. When people think of wine and Northern Oregon, they tend to think Pinot and Chardonnay, but Watermill has a range that mirrors the wineries in Eastern Washington. Watermill Winery was opened in 2005 by the Brown family and they've enlisted the winemaking skills of Rich Funk of Saviah Cellars.
Walla Walla Valley is home to hot days and cool nights, and is generally cooler than the surrounding Columbia Valley AVA. The soil is predominantly loess, or wind deposited silt, which provides great drainage. Combined with the minimum rainfall that Walla Walla receives annually, this produces concentrated flavors in the wines that are grown there.
The Watermill 100% Malbec was dark and the oak was definitely present in the wine. Hints of cigar smoke, and toasted vanilla are evidence of the French and Hungarian oak barrels being used; 50% of which is new wood. The structure of this wine is superb. The integration of alcohol and the tannins produced a very nicely balanced, well-rounded wine. This Malbec was fruit forward and pleasantly jammy.
Our next Malbec was from Wahluke Slope, designated an AVA in 2006. Wahluke Slope has 5,200 planted acres and accounts for 20% of Washington's total wine grape harvest. The soil is very rocky with the surface consisting of windblown silt. Wahluke Slope is the state's warmest AVA and has become a darling with winemakers.
The wine from Wahluke Slope was the Gilbert Cellars Malbec, which is blended with 8% Cabernet. I'm just going to start out by saying that this wine was the favorite of the evening. Plain and simple, it’s a beautiful wine. The hot site of Wahluke produced a round wine with earthy accents and the scent of over-ripe blackberries on the nose. The structure was probably the most substantial of all four we tasted. With 14.8% alcohol the wine has well integrated tannins, and while the oak was noticeable it was a nice accent on the wine but not over bearing.
Our third wine comes from McKinley Springs Vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills, a small family owned winery with an enormous vineyard, over 2,000 vineyard acres. (To give you a sense of the size, Wahluke Slope has a total of 5,200 planted acres, and Red Mountain has 600 planted acres.) McKinley Springs grows wine for some of Washington's largest and best known wineries like Hogue Cellars, Northstar, Syncline and Columbia Crest. They have an excellent reputation for Quality to Price wines on their own label. Horse Heaven Hills is comprised of south facing slopes along the Columbia River and is Washington’s windiest AVA. The winds from the Columbia come in and cool the vineyards providing the fruit with concentrated flavors. The soil type is silt loam with basalt deep below that actually absorbs some of the excess water.
The McKinley Springs Malbec was definitely more fruit forward than the other two we'd had, with plums and sour cherries on the palate. The nose was of earth, moss and spice. Less oak was evident on this wine and it was aged for slightly less time in wood than the other wines.
The Vin du Lac Barrel Select Malbec was our last wine and it comes from the Yakima Valley AVA, and the Snipes Canyon Vineyard. Snipes Canyon Ranch is not far from Red Mountain and has a reputation for being one of the cooler sites in the state of Washington and certainly within the hot Yakima Valley AVA. This cool site allows for a bit longer hang time and very ripe fruit.
This Yakima Valley Malbec is an interesting wine. We noticed a lot of pepper notes that are reminiscent of some of Washington’s hotter sites, this particular vineyard however has a cooler reputation, and the wine had lots of cinnamon and spice on the palate. The most unexpected note of the night cited fresh cut acorn squash on the nose.
These Northwest Malbecs are all drinking really well right now. Sampling wines with 100% single AVA/vineyard fruit allowed us to really appreciate the character of the varying terroirs of these Northwest AVAs. The variety and subtlety of the sources of the grapes allowed us experience how soils and climate can show up in the wine, through the nose and on the palate. Most premium wines are made in a similar manner, though there are variances in oak and time spent in the bottle. What we taste in well-crafted wine is the ability of the winemaker to highlight the fruit and terroir that makes it special.