Virginia Malbecs vs the World

Malbec is a grape that’s grown worldwide but seldom bottled alone. Cahors is its spiritual home but it’s since been adopted by Argentina, one of the few places that bottles 100% Malbec wines. Even Bordeaux considers it something of a stepchild, the least planted grape out of the 5 noble Bordeaux reds.

Out of 3000 planted acres of grapes, Virginia grows only 17 acres of Malbec – in the entire state. Saying its rare in Virginia is an understatement.

The reason for this rarity is simple – it generally does poorly in Virginia’s humidity, struggling to ripen in most years. In all my travels I’ve only seen 7-8 places in Virginia & Maryland which are either willing to put in the extra work to grow large plantings of Malbec, or possess the ‘Goldilocks’ combination of terroir it needs to express itself. More than a handful of wineries have since ripped out its Malbec vines or were forced to replant due to frost damage.

Still, the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of Malbec poised an interesting dilemma. Are there any defining characteristics for Virginia Malbec? How will it compare to France and Argentina?

To answer this question, some friends and I tasted 9 wines from three different regions, including Mendoza (Argentina), Cahors (France), and Virginia (mostly central VA but also one from Fauquier).

The contenders:

  1. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 El Enemigo
  2. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 Mascota
  3. Argentina (Mendoza) 2019 Phebus
  4. France (Cahors) 2015 Chateau de Mercuès
  5. France (Cahors) 2016 La Caminade
  6. France (Cahors) 2018 Clos La Coutale
  7. Virginia 2015 DelFosse
  8. Virginia 2016 Arterra
  9. Virginia 2016 Horton
  10. Bonus: California 2016 Schweiger

The tasting was done completely blind. We did 3 flights, with each flight consisting of a wine from each region. We conducted a “Finalist’s Round” of the winners from each of the three flights.

First off, nearly all of these wines were nearly the same jet-ink color. A few were slightly lighter than others (possibly because some had some other grapes blended in), but any differences were going to have to be determined by nose and palate.

Flight #1

  • 2015 DelFosse ($26): Earth floor on the nose. Tobacco notes yet fruity. Overall not especially complex but still a well-received wine. (2.5 votes)
  • 2017 El Enemigo ($22): Earthy notes and some funk on the nose. Lighter bodied than the previous one but still strong tannin. Some fruit notes on the palate. Favorite of the 1st flight. (3.5 votes)
  • 2015 Chateau de Mercuès ($28): Blended with Merlot. Raspberry notes but also some bitterness. I picked this up at Total Wine and while it had good reviews it wasn’t well received here. (1 vote)

Flight #2

  • 2016 Arterra ($35?): Spicy and bright. Arterra makes their wines via natural yeast fermentation, which I’ve found is a love-it-or-hate-it quality. I enjoyed it but not the winner of this round. (2.5 votes)
  • 2019 Phebus ($16): This was the youngest wine of the night – and it showed. Despite that, we seemed to really enjoy the fruitiness. A bit tart and minerally as well. Overall it was on point, and twice in a row Argentina takes the win for favorite of the flight. (4 votes)
  • 2018 Clos La Coutale ($18): One of my participants gave it the weirdest tasting note descriptor of the night; “mash potatoes”. Another said notes of herb garden and tart on the palate. I thought it had a ‘weird’ nose and fruit notes. Not a winner for us. (1 vote)

Flight #3

  • 2016 “Cy” La Caminade ($22): I picked this up at a local wine store based on their recommendation. Different participants provided different descriptors, ranging from bell pepper, blackberry, and/or leather on the nose. One participant noted a bit of sourness. Not my favorite but got outvoted! (3 votes)
  • 2017 Mascota Vineyards ($15): One of the most widespread commercial producers in Argentina. Tobacco nose, black cherry palate. (1.5 votes)
  • 2016 Horton ($30): Bright, fruity. My favorite of the night! Words were hard for me by then, but I crowdsourced the tasting notes “Earthy nose and cranberry notes on the palate”. Sadly, this was Horton’s last vintage of this grape. (2.5 votes)

Finalist Round

  • Argentina 2017 El Enemigo: Funky nose. Words were hard by this point so no tasting descriptors. 4 votes
  • Argentina 2019 Phebus: Musty. 3 votes
  • Cahors 2019 La Caminade: Slight must, some fruit, brighter than others. Zero votes.

For our bonus round, we tried the Napa 2016 Schweiger. Very ripe! It was a totally different wine than the rest- and not just because we were lit up by then.

Overall, I’d say our tasting notes were all over the place. I knew this would be a challenging grape for Virginia to compare, but I still think it did well. Notably, Virginia Malbecs were voted in the middle of each flight, while Argentina was consistently #1 and France ended up last.

My personal favorite was Horton but I did like the Phebus as well. I suspect younger, more fruit-driven wines appealed to the crowd I was with so that may have impacted the results.

The winner!

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