Fall 2012

Finally finding a distinctive Malbec

There is no accounting for taste, of course, so when you read that a bottle of Malbec rates a score of 94, you make the assumption the reviewer liked the thing.

This may well be true of other grape varieties as well, but with relatively new grapes to the American social wine scene, as is Malbec, one wonders what paradigm the reviewer used. It certainly cannot be a well-known identity that sets Malbec apart from the other already-popular wine grapes. What is Malbec anyhow? (Or is a wine that tastes good sufficient for a high score?)

Ask the following questions of yourself. What is the correct varietal identity for Malbec? And, in what region does it flourish with a distinctive personality? If you did ask yourself such questions, you would be the first person (after me). The reason no one asks such questions is simple: No one cares.

Now imagine asking the same questions about Cabernet Sauvignon, and you may reach a similar conclusion: Who really cares? As long as the red wine is deep, dark, rich, concentrated, oak-flavored and soft enough to drink when it's released, questions of endemic varietal character, terroir, age-worthiness and other such factors are not major issues at all.

And yet it's true that Malbec plantings have been sighted in Columbia Valley, and some growers feel proud of their foresight to get ahead of the curve on a New World variety that has already proven to be a marginal success.

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After all, Malbec is one of Bordeaux's Big Five and helps make great, classic Clarets (British usage) that not only age well, but also command very high prices.

However, the parallel ends there. With a thud. That's because Malbec's drawbacks are numerous, its potential in Washington is murky at best.

There's one saving grace, which I will reveal.

On the plus side, Malbec is a generous fruit-deliverer, with its plum, violet, blueberry/mulberry and other berry elements providing a base for some nice red wine. The key problem here, as I see it, is that for the most part, Malbec is a one-note samba, with as much complexity as a blank sheet of paper.

Yes, it's part of the Bordeaux substrate, but only a part -- and a cynic would argue that it's the fourth "most interesting" grape out of five.

Indeed, Malbec is usually so one-dimensional that in California, where a lot of strange things have been made and called wine over the decades, Malbec has been lackluster. So much so that in a column about a year ago, I called it "the red wine for people who think Merlot is too exciting."

Well, call me chastened. There is no certainty here, but what I have tasted in the last few weeks is a range of Malbecs from one Washington producer whose wines over the last decade have shown remarkable stability and actually are evocative of something.

What that something is may well be varietal character. I can't be sure because we have to assume that the exact sort of varietal character I am seeing out of the wines of Paul Portteus' vineyard in the Yakima Valley is the same or similar character one would get from the grape if it had roughly the same soil and temperature gradients, and if the grape's harvest regime was as point-on as is Portteus's.

And you can get a sense of that by tasting the wines. From the 2004, which is just coming into its own, to the 2005 (when the AVA on the label changes to Rattlesnake Hills), through the 2008 and 2009 with more vibrancy, the aromas are fascinatingly consistent.

Red cherry starts the ball rolling, but with hints of violet racing through traces of leaves, precursors of pepper, and a bit of earth.

Puget Sound blogger (The Wine Economist) Mike Veseth recently wrote that he thought Malbec could be Washington's next hot variety, but with so little planted in the state, all we have to go on are the scant number of cases being produced by numerous smaller producers. Among Veseth's top Malbecs are Fidelitas, Gamache, Hamilton Cellars, Nefarious, Reininger, Saviah and William Church.

That Portteus didn't make his list may be because he never tasted the wines or he didn't think they were varietal.

But what if they are? The fact that all Portteus Malbecs fall under 14% alcohol may be an anomaly these days of "big" reds, but this may be what drew me to the wines -- the fact that they are drinkable.

Yes, Argentina seems to be making a name with Malbec, and for a good reason: They seem to fit with big-red drinkers. But far too many of these one-note sambas leave me bored after a half glass. Not so the Portteus wines.

The 2009 ($30) now available is as complex as any of the past wines and delivers even more of the peppery notes that I found so intriguing in the 2008. The 2007, incidentally, is rather elegant, quite a word to use to describe a wine that comes from a grape that makes reputedly one of the world's heaviest reds, Cahors.

So what if Porrteus Malbecs don't catch on the way I think they should? And what happens if the variety gets so ill-treated that it makes a dull, ordinary and uninteresting wine that never catches the fancy of the consumer?

So we have the ultimate solution: dry rosé!

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

This story was originally published September 15, 2012 12:00 AM.

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