Ken Robertson

Malbec: A wine elevated by the Northwest

Drop back a decade in the history of Northwest wine, and you’ll be hard pressed to find Malbec among our young region’s top wines. For Wine Press Northwest’s 2009 Platinum Judging, only two shouldered their way into the top tier of award winners, out of 85 wines that won Double Platinum or Platinum awards. Both were from the 2007 vintage.

When most folks in our region talked about Malbec, which was seldom, it was to note that it was getting planted, had done well in Argentina and that its stronghold in France was centered in Cahors and the Loire region. Comb through the index to the 2005 edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and you won’t find a single mention of any Northwest state or province under the Malbec entry.

One reason for that: Malbec does not even show up on surveys of Washington grape plantings until 1999, when 50 acres were recorded. Even by 2011, there were only 378 acres, with a yield of 1,300 tons. By 2015, the latest numbers available, that had jumped to 2,400 tons. I could not find a more recent acreage total, but if 2011 yields are typical, the the 2,400 tons harvested in 2015 would indicate the state has about 700 acres of Malbec.

Whatever the exact numbers, Malbec is playing a much larger role in our region. When the 2016 Platinum Judging was conducted last fall, 31 of the 530 entries were gold-medal-winning Malbecs. That’s behind Cabernet Sauvignon, with 59; Syrah, with 48; and Merlot, with 39. But it’s ahead of Oregon’s premier red wine grape, Pinot Noir, with 29, and both of the top white wines, Riesling, with 26, and Chardonnay, with 21.

When the judges had stopped sniffing, swirling and sipping, they awarded 44 Double Platinums and 125 Platinums. Among them were two Double Platinum Malbecs and 12 Platinum Malbecs.

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The Platinum winners were made mostly in Washington, but Idaho (with a Malbec made from grapes grown in Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills), Oregon and British Columbia also were represented. Their AVAs of origin in Washington included Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope, Walla Walla Valley, Lake Chelan, Rattlesnake Hills and the Horse Heaven Hills. B.C.’s Okanagan and Oregon’s Umpqua Valley each had one Platinum winner.

Thus Malbec, in roughly a decade’s time, has proved itself to be hardy in a broad array of climates and, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, capable of producing top-flight wines.

That versatility has not gone unnoticed. When Wine Press Northwest conducted a tasting of Northwest Malbecs in late January, 101 wines were entered from across the Northwest’s grape-growing areas, with vintages ranging from 2009-2015.

The results: 6 were awarded Double Gold medals, 22 Gold medals. Those top 28 wines again came from a broad array of our region’s AVAs, from Southern Oregon to Lake Chelan, from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley in Idaho to the Umpqua Valley in Oregon. Again, many of the grapes that went into the winners came from AVAs that fall within 75 miles of the Tri-Cities, which is arguably the center for the region that grows Washington’s greatest wine grapes.

In both the 2016 Platinum and in the 2017 Malbec tasting, I served as a panel moderator, which allowed me to hear and take notes on the observations of an array of judges who ranged from a couple who have judged internationally for decades, to academics involved in two of the region’s top postsecondary programs for viticulturists and winemakers and to Northwesterners who work every day within the industry.

As a group, they came away from these tastings impressed by the varying styles winemakers had crafted from our region’s grapes, from lighter and softer, easy-drinking reds to hefty, dark purple, complex and substantial wines. And many of them are pretty affordable, starting at about $16, with several of the best-rated wines priced right around $20. And yes, you can spend $60 on a Malbec, but that’s the top price in the field of 102.

That $60 price tag is admittedly more than most of us want to spend, even on a fine red wine, but when compared with the most expensive Cabernets and red blends, which can cost more than $100, it makes that Malbec seem a bit more affordable.

Wine words: Franciacorta

The sparkling wines of France, Spain and Italy are a staple on the shelves of most of our Northwest wine shops and liquor stores. Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, Moscato and Asti Spumanti all are easy to find.

Franciacorta, a grape-growing and winemaking region in Northern Italy in the province of Brescia, not so much, even though it’s been officially recognized for 50 years now after being officially recognized as a DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) — the equivalent of our AVA — and has been producing sparkling wines ever since. Starting with a modest 250 cases of sparkling wine back in 1961, the region has since focused its efforts on sparkling wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (Noir) and Pinot Bianco (Blanc), with Pinot Grigio having fallen out of use in its sparkling wines.

And although the region has been known for its wines for about 2,000 years, with both Virgil and Pliny the Elder mentioning them, its current traditions began to evolve about the same time the Northwest began to re-establish our wine industry.

Production now appears to be about 600,000 cases, which is why it’s not common in the U.S. Prices, however, tend to run well below French Champagnes of equivalent quality, starting out around $20. My first encounter with Franciacorta sparklers came last fall during a trip to Italy. The quality of that inexpensive example was impressive. Many Northwest sparkling wines of equivalent quality sell for similar prices and sometimes less, but it still was well worth trying.

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