Malbec not Washington's next big red

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 15, 2012 

I hear tell that some folks out there in the hinterlands are fixin' to plant some of that there Malbek, or however it's spelt, and that some already have, and I kinda feel like I'm the guy who done brung my pet pig to a formal dinner party.

Cuz what I got to say ain't purty.

(Pause to expectorate tobacco juice.)

Sorry, folks, a distant cousin of mine sat down at my computer and wrote the above intro to this story. He did, however, get one thing right: I bear no fond tidings about Malbec (correct spelling).

It is also true that Malbec plantings have been sighted on the horizon in Columbia Valley and some growers feel quite proud of themselves in their foresight to get ahead of the curve on a New World variety that has already proven to be a marginal success.

Well, no one asked me, but ...

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

And there, the parallel ends. With a thud. That's because Malbec's drawbacks are numerous, its potential in Washington is murky at best, and the downside is expensive. There is one saving grace, which I will reveal at the end of the sad diatribe.

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 sheet of blank paper.

Yes, it's part of a red Bordeaux substrate, but only a part. And a cynic would argue that it's the fourth "most interesting" grape out of five, only Petit Verdot being less vibrant in a blend.

Indeed, it 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 rather lackluster as a variety. It shows a singularity of fruit when it is young that asks the consumer to accept the fact that it won't give you any particular complexity.

In that mode, it has none of the herbality of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, none of the spice or berry depth of Zinfandel and little else that would suggest it is more than Beaujolais on steroids.

Worse perhaps is the fact that on its own, it has little chance to make itself from ugly duckling to regal swan because, as a less-than-complex youngster, with bottle age it simply loses its one major point of attraction, fruit.

So a bit like Nouveau Beaujolais, Malbec (in my experience) is best young.

All well and good. But further bad news is that Malbec is thus best sold for a moderate price, and that is something the Argentinians have been able to do, sending to the United States a plethora of nice, simple, easy-to-like, fruity-and-not-much-more red wines.

And few, if any, of them reach $20 a bottle. And here is where the Columbia Valley faces a brick wall. And a lot of it has to do with the expectations of Americans.

Once you taste a well-made Argentine Malbec, for which you have paid maybe as much as $15, what on earth will move you to spend twice as much for a similarly named wine? Even if it has been steroided with new French oak, loads of alcohol and a bottle so heavy that it would sink an Italian ship?

And the real problem at this juncture is how much it cost the Columbia Valley grower to plant that Malbec and, thus, how much he or she must charge for a bottle.

And here's the thing: Washington already is on the dinner table at many homes with superb Cabernet Sauvignons, excellent Syrahs and great Merlots. And someone thinks that all you have to do is plant another red wine grape and the world will beat a path to the cellar door?

Now, you may well ask what all this negativity is all about. And I think I have the solution.

It is pink. Rose wines are the real solution to those who have banked on Malbec being the Next Big Red. When it all begins to fizzle, the solution is to:

A. Increase the crop loads to 10 tons per acre.

B: Make a dry rose wine from it.

The benefits:

* You can pick early (21 brix is all you need to make a fabulous dry pink wine).

* You can bottle the wine literally weeks after you crush.

* No barrels are needed (or wanted).

* You can make more money off a 10-tons-per-acre red wine made into pink than you could ever with 5-tons-per-acre stuff that is rather uninteresting.

* And the best thing of all is that in my experience, some of the best pink wines you will ever drink are dry roses made from Malbec.

See, not all the news is bad.

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).

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