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Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.

  1. Texacaliali says:

    Timely post for me Steve, I just spent the past week in Texas on a sales visit and was asked if I had any Malbec wines all day long!

    In part b/c I spent many years over the past decade representing some of the very best Malbec producers from Argentina – now that their popularity has spread throughout the American market – so has the Malbec grape, people can pronounce it, and maybe Malbec hit big when Merlot fell away with some lucky timing.

    My question is – what’s the magical retail price for a well-made domestic Malbec? Folks who are use to a good Argentine Malbec pay $20 or under, sure there are big names making grand priced Malbec in Argentina, but for the most part QPR is under $20. Malbec fruit from Napa Valley has to be spendy…

    I think I agree that Cali Malbec may be best suited in a blend. The ideal growing climate in Mendoza just can not be replicated. Is Washington State making good Malbec? Haven’t had my eye on Malbec in awhile to notice…

  2. Steve,

    I too have had a number of decent Malbecs but nothing that knocked my socks off.. until I had the Mt Brave from Mount Veeder. That had a serious wow factor. After reading over your post here I looked over my notes from the past few Veeder tastings and noticed many of the wines I liked had Malbec in the blends: Hess’ 19 Block Cuvee, Marketa Cab., and the Mount Veeder Reserve Cab. come to mind. While the folks up on Veeder have a reputation for “gettin’ all mavericky” up there, I believe there is a method to their madness and I also believe Argentina may have been a role model. The high altitude Argentinian offerings have been getting huge scores and plenty of accolades of late particularly in the Luján de Cuyo and Uco Valley valley regions. These are very high altitude (up to 5,000 feet) as is Mount Veeder. It seems at least for Veeder the producers up there have found an ideal spot and are giving it a go. Lagier-Meredith is just now releasing their first Malbec vintage and I’ll be giving it a try in a few weeks at the big Veeder tasting. While I agree most offerings are not much to get excited about Mount Veeder is a big exception…

  3. We’ve planted more Malbec on Mount Veeder recently, and have more than 50 acres producing right now. And we make a limited release Hess Small Block Series Malbec that I think would catch your eye, with a very special icon level Malbec arriving in the next vintage or so. It won’t surprise me that you’ll likely be revising the “California Malbec isn’t interesting” comment sooner than you might think.

  4. Steve,
    You should try our Malbec here at Ladera Vineyards. Howell Mountain grown, I think it really shows what can be done with Malbec here in Napa Valley. Come on over to the winery and I will taste you on it.

  5. First off; California Malbec is generally not tannic; analytically speaking. It is technically a high color, low tannin red, and needs very well drained, restrictive soils to get ripe. I grow it and make it from Alexander Valley. There, I put it on the poorest soil possible. The Argentinian Malbecs though generally have more phenolic “goodies” due to higher elevation. According to Laura Catena; Malbec does increase with color and tannin due to higher UV sunlight captured at higher altitudes; unlike Cabernet and especially Merlot that can get scorched there.

    Second; California winemakers are just starting to tinker with it; trying to find the right spots. It does have a niche as a varietal for the tasting room. So, give it some time to develop as a California varietal. Many growers are reluctant to grow it; since they can get consistently higher yields with Cabernet than Malbec.

    I would agree it is best as a secondary, or tertiary blender for making excellent; Bordeaux Style Red Blends. I love blending it into high tannic, rustic Cabernets than to do protein fining. It does now have a legitimate purpose as a blender for Cabernet and Red Blends in California. We are fortunate in California; in that we can grow Malbec and Petite Verdot more successfully than Bordeaux.

    Finally, no mention of it’s ancestral roots “Cahors”? I had the pleasure to visit that wine growing area last year. Love the organically farmed Cahors from Chateau du Cedre. They use Merlot and a dash of Tannat to add some backbone. Almost all the Cahors are blended wines, few are 95 to 100% Malbec. Highly underrated red wine region.

  6. Steve:

    I have found a very receptive audience to the Small Lot Offering Malbec that we make at The Steven Kent Winery in the Livermore Valley.

    Our Malbec is planted in a block with a mix of “Clear Lake Clay” and “Linne Clay Loam” at about 900′ feet above sea level. The wine tends to viscous mid-palate and “sauvage” fruit character; tannin levels are moderate, eepecially compared to Cabernet from the same site.

    I find the variety to be conspicuously “Malbec-y” so it appears in very small percentages in blends like LINEAGE | Livermore Valley, but wonderful as a 100% offering.

    The future for Malbec from California is up in the air at this point. Until and if more acreage is planted, our pricing is unlikely to match that of Argentina.

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