Tsillan Cellars, a short drive from Chelan, pulls from estate vines overlooking Lake Chelan to produce award-winning wines. (Richard Duval Images)

Tsillan Cellars, a short drive from Chelan, pulls from estate vines overlooking Lake Chelan to produce award-winning wines. (Richard Duval Images)

Northwest Wine: A global red, malbec finds a home in Washington

Just last fall, nearly 4,000 tons were harvested in the Evergreen State, just behind cabernet franc.

Malbec is a bold and juicy red grape with origins in Bordeaux, the famous region in France where the variety is known as cot and often far from the spotlight.

The landscape for malbec has changed dramatically. If you want a better sense for a French malbec, set your sights on Cahors, halfway between Bordeaux and the Mediterranean.

However, it’s the New World where malbec truly shines. In South America, malbec arrived in Argentina in the 19th century. Thanks to the tireless work being done there, malbec is viewed as the country’s national grape and enjoys serious success on a global scale. Today, more than 100,000 acres of malbec are planted in Argentina. The country exports more than 3 million cases of malbec to the United States.

The Northwest is definitely malbec country, too. It ripens ahead of cabernet sauvignon, and there are examples available from every region, including British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

In Washington, malbec has been coming into its own. As recently as 2007, just 700 tons were harvested. Last fall, that number had reached nearly 4,000 tons, just behind cabernet franc.

Thankfully, dozens of Washington wineries make delicious examples of malbec, as it seems to thrive under the Columbia Valley’s warm weather and endlessly sunny skies. It’s grown in nearly every region of the state, with great examples coming from the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, the arid Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan and the relatively cool Yakima Valley.

Consistently, Washington malbec offers complex aromas and flavors of blueberries, violets and spices, all backed up by a structure that relies on brightness rather than tannin. That tends to invite a second glass from tannin-averse wine lovers or those weary of heavy merlots and cabernet sauvignons. This also makes Washington malbecs more food friendly, pairing well with everything from grilled meats to lasagna, mushrooms, stews and even roasted turkey.

Here are some delicious examples of Washington malbec from various regions, all of which won gold medals this year in the Cascadia International Wine Competition or two college scholarship fundraising judgings — the Washington State Wine Competition and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or order them directly from the winery.

Waterbrook Winery 2016 Reserve Malbec, Columbia Valley, $25: One of the Walla Walla Valley’s most underrated talents is the affable John Freeman, who worked alongside Waterbrook founder Eric Rindal prior to the purchase by Precept. Freeman continues to show himself to be a marvel with malbec, and his larger bottling of the Bordeaux gem ranks among the Northwest’s best bargains. Here, he relies on two Yakima Valley sites — Willard and Precept-controlled Canyon View Ranch — with backing from historic Weinbau Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope. Gorgeous florals reminiscent of iris, violet and jasmine complement the cherry and blueberry aromas. Its medium-bodied and agile structure makes for an accessible and appealing foundation. Plum, blueberry, chocolate milkshake and those florals result in a red wine ideal for drinking while waiting for fare to come off the grill. This earned a gold medal at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition and best of class at the Cascadia.

Five Star Cellars 2014 Malbec, Walla Walla Valley $38: Matt Huse, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s Institute of Enology and Viticulture, targets two famed vineyards — Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge — for his malbec program. It’s a classic example that opens with black plum, blackcurrant, charming oak and chalky earth. Bold and lush fruit flavors are led by blackberry, which come across smoothly. Blueberry acidity makes for a lingering finish with a touch of cinnamon. It was among the trio of gold medals at the Walla Walla judging for Huse, who also operates a tasting in Woodinville.

Tsillan Cellars 2016 Estate Reserve Malbec, Lake Chelan, $42: Dr. Bob Jankelson took a leap of faith in 2000 when he began to invest in vineyards, a winery and a restaurant above the south shore of Lake Chelan. Here’s another signature of proof that he was correct. It also exemplifies the smooth winemaking transition in 2017 from Shane Collins to Ray Sandidge. These nine barrels of malbec come across as dark and beautiful, a wine loaded with plum and Bing cherry, mocha and baking spice, capped with blood orange acidity and a pinch of violet. Enjoy with Dijon and Pistachio-Crusted Rack of Lamb at Jankelson’s on-premise Sorrento’s Ristorante. It earned a gold medal at the 2019 Washington State Wine Competition.

Milbrandt Vineyards 2015 Ravenscliff Vineyard Single Vineyard Series Malbec, Wahluke Slope $42: An estate planting for Butch Milbrandt, Ravenscliff gets its name for the corvids often circling this vineyard. This deep, dark purply red wine presents brooding aromas of warmed blackberries, cigar box and gravel. Those tones turn much brighter and stimulating on the palate, which is robust with dark berries, pomegranate and a dusting of black pepper. Its well-structured backbone makes this an age-worthy and superb food wine. This grabbed a gold medal at the 2019 Cascadia.

Merry Cellars 2016 Malbec, Columbia Valley, $50: One of Patrick Merry’s most prized bottlings is his malbec, and computer scientist’s gold this summer at the Washington State Wine Competition again shows why. The work at his winery in Palouse near Washington State University leans heavily on Stillwater Creek Vineyard in the Frenchman Hills across the Royal Slope, malbec harvested at nearly 26 Brix. In the cellar, the restraint shows with 16 months in 1-year-old American oak. That allows for notes of dark plum, black cherry and blackberry, backed by hints of black olive, Earl Grey tea, dried orange peel and a rub of sage. Those descriptors added up to a best-of-class award at the 2019 Washington State Wine Competition.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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