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Malbec's Journey From Cahors to California

 	 A row of malbec vines in the Chappellet vineyards, Napa Valley, California
© Dominic Chappellet | A row of malbec vines in the Chappellet vineyards, Napa Valley, California
Napa Valley is best known for cabernet sauvignon, but malbec is proving an interesting – albeit unpredictable – addition to the region's vineyards.

In the same year that Bill Clinton became president of the United States, malbec finally appeared as a grape variety in its own right in Napa County.

Until 1993, it was included in the “other blacks” category in the area’s Agricultural Crop Report, along with more obscure varieties such as early burgundy, grand noir, carmine and saint-macaire.

Since then, the French – and now Argentine – grape variety has been making slow but steady progress in America's most famous wine region. It won't be replacing cabernet sauvignon any time soon, but the fifth and last red Bordeaux variety to arrive in the region is in more bottles of Napa red than you might think.

Of course, malbec wasn't really a grape anyone had heard of outside of wine circles in the early 1990s. It entered into popular consciousness only when the Argentines came along with their varietally labeled malbecs in the new millennium and made a big splash in North American wine aisles. Argentina's global wine exports were equivalent to just 9.6 million bottles when the country's government abandoned the peso's fixed one-to-one peg with the American dollar and floated the currency, leading to a huge depreciation. Since then, wine exports have boomed, reaching 105.5 million bottles in 2011, with malbec representing around two in every five bottles shipped. Not bad at all for a Bordeaux blender.

Indeed, “Argentina has been the warm-up act for the consumer” when it comes to malbec, says Jon Ruel, president of Napa Grapegrowers and chief operating officer of Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa's Oak Knoll District.

The South Americans have made drinkers comfortable with the variety and paved the way for other malbec producers to succeed. For example, although winemakers in the Cahors region of south-west France have been growing malbec for more than 800 years, it was the Argentines who made the grape their signature variety, with great success.

Sacré bleu, the French thought, so they fought back. In 2006, the Cahors wine association launched a major marketing campaign in the United States proclaiming, “Cahors is back, Cahors is black, Cahors is Malbec!” The region has been running annual malbec tours around North America ever since. This general rise in consumer awareness can't have done any harm to Napa wineries making malbec, which report that their single-varietal bottlings sell out year after year.

But Napa being Napa, the wine doesn't comes cheap. While Argentine malbec ticks the good-value box, producing plenty of sub-$20 more-bang-for-your-buck reds, this isn't a slot Napa is going to be filling with its malbec. Its interpretation of the variety is significantly more expensive due to high land prices and the high cost of growing the grape. Compared to cabernet sauvignon and merlot – Napa's two most planted varieties – malbec's yields are “pathetic,” making it unattractive to the region's grape growers, says Dave Guffy, Hess Collection's winemaker.

“The problem for most people is that it hasn't been economic to grow," Guffy says. "Most older clones have been alternate-bearing, so one year you get an OK crop, the next you don't get anything.”

His experience with malbec is repeated across the valley, from the altitudes of Mount Veeder down to the valley-floor districts. Most growers agree there are a number of reasons for the low yields but the variety's sensitivity at flowering, which determines the season's potential crop, is perhaps the biggest issue. If the weather is even slightly unsettled during the spring, malbec “flowers don't set, they just abort and you end up with straggly clusters with no grapes on them,” says Phillip Corallo-Titus, winemaker at Chappellet Winery.

And this is exactly what happened during the 2011 season, says Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Mt Brave and Lokoya. “We got only two tons [of grapes] off three acres because the temperature variability was such that the flowers didn't set.”

Malbec’s sensitivity at flowering means yields can be very low and bunches “straggly”
© Dominic Chappellet | Malbec’s sensitivity at flowering means yields can be very low and bunches “straggly”

But it's not simply a question of successful flowering. Clonal selection is also proving to be vital to the success of malbec in the region. Most producers are using a selection of clones including 3, 4, 5, 9 and 595. While they say they are generally happy with the quality of fruit these clones produce, the quantity – or lack of it – is the issue. “There are some older clones, like 4, and some of these are not economic,” says Guffy.

Nevertheless, producers are making efforts to improve yields and make the variety economically viable in the Napa Valley. Chappellet has experimented with “kicker canes,” leaving an additional cane on the vine in the hope that the extra buds on it will add to the vine's crop. They've also tried spraying the vines with zinc, which is said to improve set.

Since malbec is a notoriously vigorous vine to tame, a number of growers also pinch the tips of the growing shoots at flowering. “Malbec is skewed towards having a vigorous canopy, which means it puts all its energy into growing foliage rather than grapes,” says Ruel. “We pinch the tips of the growing shoots to disrupt the balance of the vine. The vine then puts its energy elsewhere – setting the fruit – and since I started doing that, I haven't had many problems with yield.”

Yet Argentina is making millions of cases of the stuff at very reasonable prices, so where are the Californians going wrong? “If you find out, let me know,” says Corallo-Titus, "because we have been wondering why someone would base an industry on a variety that yields so poorly."

In search of answers, we head south to the malbec capital of Mendoza in Argentina, and learn that the Californians aren't the only ones having trouble with yields. During the 2011-12 season, some Mendoza vineyards lost up to 50 percent of the crop because high winds in spring prevented successful flowering.

Most producers suggest it could be a clonal issue. Doña Paula's viticulturist, Edgardo del Popolo, suggests they could try French cot clones. "I think they would achieve better results in terms of productivity, but quality would not be guaranteed.”

Fellow Mendozan Daniel Pi, winemaker at Trapiche, has regularly experienced these problems during his 30 years working in the region. His solutions have included replacing vines that have continually suffered from fruit set with cuttings from more hardy vines. He has also noticed that the problem is more common in malbec vines on American rootstocks (which are used primarily to prevent phylloxera) than on vines on their own roots.

From Cahors to California
© Lapastoure Didier/Lightmatter | From Cahors to California

In the Napa, when there is fruit to pick, malbec ripens before both merlot and cabernet sauvignon, making it suitable for cooler years such as 2011, when growers battled to fully ripen cabernet. Once malbec is in the tank and bubbling away, the most common aromas you’ll find are boysenberry or raspberry.

Thanks to the grape’s high anthocyanin content, which is responsible for the color of grapes, the final wines have an incredibly deep blue/black hue and an abundance of soft tannins, akin to Argentina’s malbecs. It’s inevitable that comparisons are drawn between the different interpretations the two regions produce but Ruel believes that’s difficult when they are like “apples and oranges.” Napa malbec does tend to have more structure than its South American equivalent. Says Carpenter: “People are always surprised when they taste our malbec from Mount Veeder because of the structure, the acidity, the minerality and the intensity of bright fruit. It’s not nearly as broad as the Argentinean malbecs can be."

The floral characteristics and blue-fruit scent can also be found in Napa’s version of malbec, and Corallo-Titus even goes as far as comparing its aromas to a children’s fruit juice. “We used to have this stuff called Hawaiian Punch when we were kids. It was this real pomegranate red fruit drink that had this tropical character. When we taste blind, we can pick the malbec because it’s got that Hawaiian Punch character when it’s young. As it ages, it tones down somewhat.”

Of course, because Napa malbec has such a short history and only a handful of single-varietal bottlings, it’s difficult to know how it will age over the medium to long term. The results so far show promise, but there are clearly hurdles to overcome in the vineyard.

While most producers believe it will remain a niche grape, consigned to limited-release offerings direct from the winery, others are more optimistic about the variety’s future in the Napa Valley. “I think it [malbec plantings] will increase as the viticultural knowledge spreads,” says Ruel. "We enjoy using it as a blending tool and as a base. I think it has fantastic potential and I know I am not alone in thinking that."

Indeed, it is adding an extra dimension to the region’s Bordeaux blends, providing middle-palate softness, a brightness of fruit and dense color that other Bordeaux varieties just can’t match.

But don’t expect it to be the next cabernet. “Nothing really seems to change over time in Napa,” says Corallo-Titus. “The strength is cabernet and we can do it really well consistently and in good volumes. Other varietals that seemed to have a bright future have faded away. There was sangiovese, and that went down in flames; syrah is now having a very hard time – people got all excited about it but it’s struggling; it’s too warm here for pinot noir; tempranillo’s never going to be the next big thing. As far as anyone taking the plunge into malbec, I’d be really surprised.”

But small is beautiful, and diversity surely makes the Napa Valley a more interesting place.

Recommended Napa Valley malbecs and blends incorporating malbec:

Trefethen Family Vineyards Dragon’s Tooth

2008 Hess Small Block Series Malbec

2009 Chappellet Las Piedras

2008 Robinson Family Vineyards Malbec


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