Malbec: Southern Oregon’s Rising Star

wine-searcher.com | By W. Blake Gray | March 20, 2021

Oregon is famous for Pinot Noir, but US editor W. Blake Gray argues it has another strong suit, too.

Southern Oregon has been looking for a grape to call its own. That grape might be Malbec.

The quality of Malbec grown in the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys in the southern part of the state is high, leading to fruit-driven wines with soft tannins: an easy wine to like for fans of the Pinot Noir grown in the northern part of the state.

“Malbec is easy to grow here. It’s easy to grow quality here,” says Eric Weisinger, winemaker for Weisinger Family Winery. “Winemakers have found Malbec not as challenging to produce as other varieties. I think it’s forgiving.”

Southern Oregon Malbec hasn’t received a lot of attention, unlike Tempranillo, which has had as big a united front as any grape variety in the parts of Oregon that aren’t Pinot Noir country. There’s an Oregon Tempranillo Alliance, which has 25 members and has hosted large tastings. If you search for “Oregon Tempranillo” you’ll find a number of articles touting it as the next big thing. I didn’t find much at all about Oregon Malbec.

But there’s nearly as much Malbec in southern Oregon as Tempranillo: 167 harvested acres in Rogue and Umpqua Valleys combined in 2018, compared to 236 harvested acres of Tempranillo, according to the University of Oregon.

I am here to contend that southern Oregon Malbec is better than southern Oregon Tempranillo, both in the glass and potentially in the marketplace, and I will lay out my subjective arguments in a moment. But let’s start with something completely objective, via economist Adam Smith: the invisible hand of the market.

I’m a fan of Napa Valley Zinfandels, and I might want to argue that they are better than Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would be laughed out of the Clubhouse room because they can’t fetch the same price. Farming is a business like any other and writers shouldn’t tell farmers to plant grapes that make less money (though kvetching about the future under global warming is fair game.)

So let’s examine what Oregon wineries are willing to pay for different grape varieties. Pinot Noir is the driver of the Oregon wine industry, responsible for about 60 percent of all harvested acres statewide. Pinot Gris is a distant second at 14 percent. University of Oregon lists 15 more varieties and slots the rest as “other”.

Statewide, Pinot Noir is highly sought: its average price of $2301 per ton in 2018 was the fourth-highest for any variety. At the top of the list is Cabernet Sauvignon, at $2810 per ton; most of it is planted near the Washington border and goes into wines labeled with the two-state but Washington-centric AVAs Columbia Valley or Walla Walla Valley. Second, at $2483 per ton, was Malbec.

Malbec is the “Oregon” grape that Oregon wineries pay the most for.

Digging the dirt

Why does Malbec grow so well? Consider why Earl Jones, founder of Abacela winery in Umpqua Valley, moved to Oregon. A Tempranillo fan, Jones searched all over the west coast for a place to grow it that would have similar conditions to Rioja and Ribera del Duero: cool winters, a very hot and dry but short summer, and a cool fall.

That also works for Malbec, which needs the heat to ripen, and can do so faster than the other approved Bordeaux varieties when it gets it. Jones saw Roseburg, Oregon’s climate and thought it was similar to northern Spain, and it is – but it’s also like Argentina’s Uco Valley.

Geologically, southern Oregon is an underappreciated source of interesting soils.

At Abacela, a fault line runs right through the vineyard. Abacela general manager Gavin Joll said that when Jones bought the 76-acre vineyard, in addition to planting Tempranillo he planted 25 other varieties. Some, including Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, didn’t succeed. But Malbec did, and 10 years later Abacela added more acres of it – though it’s still only their fifth-most planted variety.

“There’s incredibly diverse soils in all corners of our vineyard,” Joll told Wine-Searcher. “Tempranillo thrives in some of the rolling gentle hills. Malbec thrives in some of the areas with a little more heat.”

Weisinger said that his family first planted Malbec to use as a blending grape.

“We produced our first varietal Malbec in 2012 and released it in 2014. It was a hit,” Weisinger told Wine-Searcher. “About three years ago we made the decision that it was going to be a major part of our red-wine portfolio. Malbec in my experience is better with French oak. We used American oak for probably 30 years. This year 50 percent of the new oak we’re using is from France. I think it’s a significant difference. It’s going to be an expensive change, but I think these Malbecs have the potential for aging.”

The diverse soils of the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys offer a happy home for Malbec.

© Southern Oregon Wineries | The diverse soils of the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys offer a happy home for Malbec.

Dyson Demara once owned a vineyard on Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, but he says he moved to southern Oregon and bought HillCrest Vineyard “because it has good dirt”.

“Douglas County has more soil types than any county in America,” DeMara told Wine-Searcher.

DeMara is one of southern Oregon’s biggest proponents of Malbec. He makes several, including a reserve wine from 2013 (highly recommended; see below) and a new Friuli-style wine that he picks earlier to make it more “aggressive”.

“It’s high acid, high tannin, almost grapey,” DeMara said. “This wine’s a little bit in your face. It’s not the kind of thing we do in America.”

I tried a pre-release version of the HillCrest Friuli-style Malbec, which doesn’t have a name yet, and it ended up as one of my favorites; it is one of the rare wines that is better the next day.

DeMara said something to me that struck home after I tasted several southern Oregon Malbecs. When I compare fine Argentine Malbecs to other wines, it’s always other Bordeaux varietals. But my favorite Oregon Malbecs actually reminded me more of Pinot Noir, because of their freshness and soft tannins.

“The shape of a wine has a lot to do with how you drink and what you drink often,” DeMara said. “I like wines that are tender and kind of transparent.”

That’s fair; I tried Malbecs from the Washington-bordering parts of the state and they were different: more brooding, bigger in body. The southern Oregon Malbecs were fresher and lighter: fruit-driven wines, some with noticeable hints of violet. They’re not awesome or overpowering: they’re what American consumers generally think of when they reach for Malbec.

And that matters. The reason I think Malbec should be southern Oregon’s signature grape is based partly on the quality of the wines. But I also think there’s more commercial potential. Malbec is more popular in the US than “varietal Tempranillo”, in large part because the word “Tempranillo” doesn’t appear on the labels of the top wines made from it, like Rioja, Toro, etc.

I don’t have to sell wine for a living so maybe I don’t know, but Malbec seems like an easier sell. I invite dissenters to this opinion to compare the prices paid per ton by wineries for Oregon fruit: $2483 for Malbec, $1996 for Tempranillo. The market has spoken. Maybe it’s time to start an Oregon Malbec Alliance. I hope I get invited to the tasting.

The wines

Here are some of my favorite Malbecs from southern Oregon.

2016 Abacela East Hill Block Umpqua Valley Reserve Malbec Dense black fruit aroma, but on the palate it’s lighter, with fruit I want to describe as purple: juicy, with light violet notes. A vibrant wine with nice freshness. I wonder if I robbed the cradle. Abacela produces this wine only in good vintages.

2017 Abacela Umpqua Valley Malbec Abacela’s entry-level Malbec is a light, juicy and cheeky quaffer, with good freshness. 

2017 2Hawk Rogue Valley Malbec 2Hawk makes a number of reserve Malbecs but I preferred the entry-level wines. This vintage has a nice character of black and red plum with some slate notes.

2013 HillCrest Old Stones Umpqua Valley Malbec Take my advice and snap this one up while it’s still for sale. The extra bottle aging has transformed this wine into a delightful, rich, dark fruit wine with chocolatey and floral notes, fine acidity and silky tannins. This is the wine that inspired me to look further into the topic.

2017 Weisinger Family Winery Gold Vineyard Rogue Valley Malbec Malbec from Argentina at its best is a very food-friendly wine; that’s how it got popular. This is in that style, with a nice aroma of red plum, earth and violet hints. Good freshness and balance and nice red plum fruit.

2017 Plaisance Ranch Applegate Valley Malbec This lovely wine takes a while to open, but it will deliver plenty of fresh cherry with good structure. Just 12.8 percent alcohol. On the day I tasted it, I had several wines I liked open but this became my favorite over the course of the evening. Plaisance Ranch is mostly a cattle ranch with an interesting backstory: the founder moved from Savoie, France, and planted a vineyard on the ranch in 1904. He had hoped to bring his fiancée back with the vine cuttings, but she refused to come, so he ordered a mail-order French-speaking bride from Quebec. They had two daughters who became nuns and a son who died young of cancer, but not before he and his wife had the children who run the farm today. 

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