The name “Malbec World Day” translates from the Spanish “Día Mundial del Malbec,” meaning “Malbec throughout the world”.
Considered one of the “big six” of grape varieties, Malbec although most famously associated with wines from Argentina actually originated in the Bordeaux region of France. In Europe, Malbec is generally used as a blending grape and often takes a backseat to other grapes. Malbec in Argentina is quite the opposite, there it is the shining star of the wines produced there. For this reason, it is no surprise that Malbec World Day was created to commemorate the day when Argentinian president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, made it a mission to transform the wine industry in Argentina.
It was on April 17, 1853 that Domingo Faustino charged French soil expert Michel Aimé Pouget with the task to bring a new vine to Argentina. Of course, he selected Malbec and it went on to become the country’s flagship grape. In 2011, Wines of Argentina, set out to celebrate the Argentine wine brand around the world, and established April 17 as Malbec World Day. Lis Clément, their Head of Marketing and Communications at the time, founded this day because she was convinced this celebration would help position Malbec as one of Argentina’s wine gems, now it is celebrated all around the world.
When you say the word Malbec, people automatically think Argentina, but Washington has a great representation of single varietal and blended Malbec wines that have been known to make a lasting impression on winelovers. Washington’s Cascade Mountains protect the Eastern two-thirds of the state, providing a long dry grown season with hot days and cool nights. This allows for the ripening needed to soften Malbec’s dark heart and rough tannins.
Malbec first showed up in surveys of Washington grape plantings in 1999, over time growers and winemakers began to quickly establish that the Malbec grown here was producing excellent single varietals and added exceptional depth and character to red blends.
In Washington there are plantings of Malbec in AVAs all across the state, including Snipes Mountain, AVA, Lake Chelan AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA, Red Mountain AVA and two of the states oldest AVAs, Yakima Valley AVA and Walla Walla Valley AVA. These areas provide the sun and dryness that Malbec loves which helps it develop its fruitiness. Statistically Malbec is the fourth most-planted black grape variety after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah as it recently overtook Cab Franc which previously held the fourth place slot.
It is hard to pin down the exact number of Washington wineries that make a varietal Malbec or use it as the dominant grape in a blend, but of the 1000+ wineries in the state the number is climbing each year. More Washington winemakers are embracing Malbec as a special wine that should stand on its own and some are showcasing the grape in Rose’ and Port Style wines as well. Winemakers around the world say that they make varietal Malbec because the wine is too good to hide in a blend and it appears that Washington winemakers definitely agree with this philosophy.
In comparison to Argentina’s 90+ year old Malbec vines, Washington’s planting of Malbec is relatively young, with the majority of the vines being between 10-22 years old. During the last few years more planting of Malbec has occurred in Washington vineyards as Malbec seems to thrive under the warm weather and endlessly sunny skies of Eastern Washington. A robust grower, Malbec utilizes the heat, long growing season and well draining silty type soils to slowly develop it’s dark and intense fruit flavors.
When I think of Washington Malbec I always feel like they are one of the most adventurous varietals, they are layered and complex and come off as sexy and mysterious. Washington Malbec consistently offers intricate aromas and flavors of ripe PNW blackberries and blueberries, violets and a compilation of spices all backed up by a structure that harnesses the brightness of the varietal. Softer tannins in Washington Malbec often evoke surprise in tannin-averse winelovers and tends to invite a second glass for further ‘investigation’. These characteristics make Washington Malbec more food friendly, they pair well with everything from grilled meats to stews, chilis, tomato based pasta dishes and even roasted turkey.
VanArnam Vineyards is located in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA , a subset of the Yakima Valley AVA on land that was once a pear orchard. When Owners, Kent and Allison VanArnam purchased the property in 2007 they removed over 6,000 trees with their tractor and after mapping out the vineyards, they hand cultivated each vine and filled the property with varieties that they knew would thrive in the area. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc take full advantage of the long sunny days of the south facing 1000’ elevation slope as well as the shallow, silt loam soils that can be found there. All the work in the vineyards and the building of their tasting room, winery and more was all done by Kent and Allison themselves.
“We chose to plant Malbec as we loved it’s dark, plum fruitiness and we wanted to grow something a little bit out of the mainstream for the area. It grows very well in our location, ripening to full maturity and flavors. Our winemaker every year comments on the gorgeous color of the Malbec fruit and the wine that comes from it.”
Kent and Allison VanArnam, VanArnam Vineyards
Photo Credit VanArnam Vineyards
The dedication and determination that the couple put into building their vineyards and winery carries over into their Estate Red wines as well as their white wines, typically with Viognier, Roussanne and Riesling sourced from nearby vineyards. VanArnam’s strives for the highest quality possible in the crafting of their 100% single varietal and blend wines. In the Vineyards the grapes are picked by hand and great care is taken at the winery when it comes to pressing to ensure that the wines are fruity and smooth and the red wines are not overpowered with tannins. A good example of this care and craftmanship is found in their 2018 Estate Reserve Malbec
If I had tasted this wine in a blind tasting, I might not recognize it as a Malbec, soft and juicy up front with a long deep long finish I almost thought that I was tasting a Washington Syrah instead of a Malbec. The flavors were a wonderful blend of cherry with hints of blueberry and red berry combined with notes of oak and some interesting minerality. I was both intrigued and delighted with the zesty spicy flavors of this Malbec and it was a great reminder of just how vastly different the grape varietals are in different regions of the state.
Elsom Cellars has been proudly making Northwest wines since 2006 using 100% Washington grapes from some of the state’s top vineyards. Owner and Winemaker Jody Elsom has always been a bit of an explorer when it comes to the use of many varietals in her wines, especially the red varieties that she specializes in. Jody began making her signature Bordeaux and Rhone blends in Seattle back in 2006, then eventually moved the winery to Woodinville. After five years in Woodinville, Jody brought her vibrant wines back to the SoDo district in Seattle.
The ‘Adventure Hub + Winery’ in the Gateway Complex on 4th Street where Elsom Cellars is now located is not only the home to their 3,500 square-foot tasting room, but their production facility as well. Jody shares the warehouse with Evergreen Escapes and KAF Adventures two travel and adventure companies. The trio’s idea was to have a place where you could sip local wine while discovering more about faraway destinations.
Recently I posed a series of questions to Jody Elsom via email to learn more about her winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how she developed her love for Malbec. I started by asking Jody to share a little background on when she first started making Washington Malbec and what characteristics she feel it has that sets it apart from the more common varietals found in Washington?
“I spent my formative post college wine drinking years focused on California produced red wines – I worked for a company (based in the Bay Area) who had weekly team happy hours, sharing lessons learned around the wine bar and enjoying an exploration of the big bold Napa Valley Cabernets that were characteristic of the 90s. In Seattle, at a local Argentinian restaurant with a friend, I tried my first Malbec….. so different from what I had experienced previously with Napa wines. It sparked my interest to explore the world of wine. I was intrigued to learn more and discover the nuances of different varietals, regions, and growing seasons. Although it was an Argentinian Malbec that sparked my intrigue, the French style from the Cahors region is a favorite… the plum fruit flavors, finishing with lingering layers of spiciness, black pepper and earthiness pair so elegantly with many different culinary flavors.” -Jody Elsom
Jody’s first production of Washington Malbec was also her inaugural commercial vintage in 2006. “Our Malbec is planted high on the hills overlooking the Columbia River. The site provides the perfect balance of cold nights and scorching hot days which is well suited to produce the acidity required for the spicy long lasting finish and crucial ability to age the wine for a long time. The Malbec was a significant component of our 2006 Red Wine Blend.”
Elsom Cellars’ Malbec is grown within the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, at Alder Ridge Vineyards. Since 2006, they have partnered with Alder Ridge Vineyards on the management of this acreage where they have sourced since the first fruit production. Jody added that “It is one of the few lots remaining in that vineyard that is hand-picked and cared for, with an absolutely stunning view of the Columbia River.”
I was intrigued by the Reserve 2015 Malbec Dessert Wine that Elsom Cellars had produced and I asked Jody why she choose Malbec for this Port style wine and if they will you do more of it in the future.
“About midway thru the fermentation, the malbec grape begins to transform and grapefruit flavors are highlighted with a touch of sweetness and hint of spiciness… the complexity of flavors were the inspiration for our “port-style” wine. We partnered with our neighbor at 2BarDistillery to distill a malbec barrel and added the distilled spirits at the perfect time to capture those intense flavors at the perfect point of fermentation. We will highlight this first vintage for a while longer. It has some really unique characteristics and flavors that we are really proud of, but starting to plan the next vintage.”
“2007 was the first vintage where we highlighted Malbec as a the primary varietal and we’ve had award-winning Malbec wines ever since. Malbec also provides a depth of complexity, earthiness and spiciness to our blends – contributing to the Red Wine, Logan, Isabella, Enigma, and Autonomous Blends. Our latest release from the 2016 harvest has just a touch of Merlot to mellow the glass as you sip, with a spicy black pepper finish.” -Jody Elsom
2016 Elsom Cellars Malbec, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Alder Ridge Vineyard. This is a Malbec that captures your attention, drawing you in for a closer look after the first sip. Rich and full of deep sweet notes of dark fruit, cocoa, and a wonderful array of spice notes this smooth almost hypnotizing Malbec is an attention grabber. A real Classic Washington Malbec!
In ‘Adventure Uncorked’ Jody has created a wine that is not only adventurous on the palate but showcases the adventurous spirit of Washington State . Like her other wines this ‘Adventure Uncorked’ blend offers an array of distinctive flavors, lead by 67% Malbec and followed by 22% Merlot and 11% Syrah. It may be a blend but Malbec is clearly this wines expedition leader!
On the nose: cherry, vanilla, spice, little Smokey charcoal, smells tantalizing sweet-like warm ripe plums. On the palate this wine is rich with hints of WA cherry sweetness. It is tangy, zesty, and lip smacking good. Reminds me of a campfire wine, something to share after a day of hiking while you laugh and sharing stories as the fire cracks and pops. This is a wine I will return to again and again.
“Wine represents its environment ….. We try to let the wine speak for itself to represent the specific season as much as we can. Some vintages are spicier than others, and with the help of my right-hand Rebecca, we are continuing the tradition of highlighting what I consider to be one of the most underrated varietals in this state.” -Jody Elsom
There are times in our lives when moments that have been planned take a turn when we least expect it and become fortuitous moments that can change our lives in the most exciting and unexpected ways. Lee and Emily Fergestrom, owners of Fortuity Cellars in Yakima, WA can attest to this, a chance encounter in Seattle brought the two together and a future dream turned into reality sooner than expected when the couple decided in 2017 to open a winery. Now, Fortuity Cellars although still relatively small has been steadily increasing in production and popularity with Washington Wine Lovers.
for·tu·i·ty: noun; a chance occurrence. The state of being controlled by chance rather than design.
Together with winemaker, Alexis Sells, Fortuity Cellars works closely with the growers of the Yakima Valley to select grapes that will best be showcased in their Rhone and Bordeaux varietal wines. Fruit-forward and acid-driven Fortuity’s wines are ideal for sipping alone but are equally perfect for pairing with food. In their winery and tasting room in Wapato, WA they are producing whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc on top of an excellent array of red wines, like this Fortuity Cellars 2018 Fifty-Fifty.
This inviting Fifity-Fifty blend brings Malbec and Syrah equally together and features fruit from Verhey Vineyard. On the nose this blend sings with aromas of ripe blackberries and blueberries, with splashes of cocoa dusted plums and spice. On the palate this wine is deliciously fruit forward and robust with a slight peppery finish. Complex, smooth and exhibiting wonderfully balanced tannins, this blend does such an exception job in marrying the flavors of Malbec and Syrah. A really noteworthy Washington Wine!
Malbec World Day is the 17th of April, however, the entire month is #MalbecMonth, so you still have plenty of time to enjoy Malbec from all around the world.