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Originally published January 9, 2010 at 10:03 PM | Page modified January 11, 2010 at 9:26 AM

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Wine Adviser

Washington is making malbec worthy of note

Still mostly obscure in the United States, malbec from Washington wine country is making an impression. And while it's more expensive than a lot of the popular imports from Argentina, it's worth trying.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Familia Marguery 2004 Malbec; $18

Done in an Old World (lightly herbal, higher acid) style, this nicely aged malbec is from the Uco Valley, with vineyards at 3,600 feet. It was originally intended for a much higher price point; but at this price it's tough to resist.

(Grape Expectations distributes)

IT WAS ONLY about 15 years ago that Washington syrah was an exotic, rarely seen, semi-mythical creation. The odd bottle surfaced here and there from Columbia, or McCrea, or Glen Fiona. But a prediction that within a decade it would become the signature grape of some of this state's most innovative wineries would have seemed ridiculous. Yet here we are. McCrea, Betz Family, Bunnell Family, K Vintners, Cayuse, Walter Dacon, Rôtie and Rasa (to name a few syrah specialists) are leaders among literally hundreds of wineries making syrah.

What obscure red-wine varietal will someday soon become a superstar here in Washington? Contenders abound. Growers are eagerly experimenting with almost anything that can be stuck in the ground, and very fine examples of cabernet franc, carmenère, counoise, mourvèdre, petite sirah, petit verdot, primitivo, tempranillo and zinfandel can already be found.

But I'm putting my chips down on malbec. The Washington malbecs I've tasted — and they are still relatively few and far between — capture the essence of a grape that has zoomed into widespread popularity based almost entirely on inexpensive imports from Argentina.

I am told that this state's first malbec was planted at the Konnowac vineyard in the Yakima Valley in the late 1980s. The first malbec vines went into the ground in Walla Walla in the late 1990s. Seven Hills winery began producing varietal malbec in 2001, and with each new vintage, more wineries join the list.

The grapes may come from Walla Walla, the Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope or Yakima Valley, but across the board they share two traits:

Most important, they ripen well, expressing varietal flavors that seem to combine the best qualities of the three major Bordeaux grapes. Imagine an elegant version of cabernet sauvignon, with the softer tannins of merlot and the spicy coffee and tobacco notes of cabernet franc. That's malbec.

The other common characteristic among the Washington malbecs I've sampled is this: They all come from young vines. Most are made from third- or fourth- or fifth-leaf fruit; the oldest might come from vines a decade old. Young vines can produce delicious, bright, almost candied fruit flavors, forward and fresh. But they cannot capture the flavor depth of wines from older vines.

Argentine malbecs fall roughly into two camps: budget bottles, which are delicious and attractively priced, and old-vine wines (60 or more years of age) that are given the most careful treatment, the best barrels, the most discerning winemaking. These wines often sell for $40, $50, $60 or more.

Right in the middle of these two bookends you'll find most Washington malbecs. They have more flavors in common with the young, fresh, lower-priced Argentine versions, but (alas) they cost a bit more. Why? Because new vineyards ain't cheap. The grapes are rare and in demand. Production is very limited, and most malbecs are sold through mailing lists and tasting rooms.

Here are recommended malbecs (from both places) that span the price spectrum. Note that the Washington wines are very limited; contact the winery for purchase information.

Conquista ($8); Alamos ($10); Altas Cumbres ($10); AltoSur ($10); Gouguenheim ($10); Pascual Toso ($11); Doña Paula ($12); Trapiche ($17); Martino Old Vine Reserva ($25); Altocedro Reserva ($38); Achaval-Ferrer Quimera ($40); Melipal Reserve ($45); Senetiner Cadus ($50); Renacer ($60); Achaval-Ferrer Finca Bella Vista ($112).

Alexandria Nicole "Block 20" ($38); àMaurice ($34); Buty/Beast "Phinny Hill" ($30); Bunchgrass "Frazier Bluff" ($32); Canoe Ridge ($?); Flying Trout "Phinny Hill" ($28); Milbrandt ($25); RiverAerie ($22); Saviah ($30); Seven Hills ($28); Stevens "Timley" ($30); Walla Walla Vintners ($32).

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.



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