In a vinous twist on the silly old concept of shipping coals to Newcastle, Paul and Maggie Bush are packing a couple of cases of malbec as they prepare for a Fourth of July wine tasting in the Cahors region of southwest France.
With the possible exception of Argentina, Cahors is the appellation most closely identified with malbec, a black grape that yields a densely colored red wine that is developing a following for the opulence of its fruit and the solidity of its structure. The wine it produces in Cahors is so opaque it long has been called "the black wine."
Malbec is grown in California, too, but here it's used primarily as a blending wine with the likes of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the role it also has played traditionally in Bordeaux.
In recent years, however, California malbec has been popping up in wine shops and on restaurant wine lists as a stand-alone varietal, a development encouraged by the success in the United States of malbecs from Argentina.
The Bushes, who grow nearly 30 varieties of grapes in three El Dorado County vineyards, have become particularly smitten with both malbec and the Cahors district. There they became acquainted with Jeremy Arnaud, marketing director for the region. The Bushes also learned that Cahors is home to a fairly substantial community of American ex-pats. Thus evolved the notion of a Fourth of July wine tasting to compare the characteristics of malbec as it is made in both Cahors and California.
Toward that goal, Paul Bush began to round up California malbecs as potential candidates to show what kind of wine the grape is yielding here. His hope was to choose and take to France a half-dozen or so wines that would demonstrate regional variations. In his roundup, he avoided collecting malbecs with the broad appellation "California" that didn't specify the area where the grapes were cultivated.
As a measure of how closely associated malbec is with Argentina rather than California, Bush found when he visited a local branch of Total Wine & More about 50 releases from the former, just one from the latter.
Ultimately, he gathered 16 candidates, fewer than he expected at the outset of his quest. There might have been more had not 2010 and 2011 been especially challenging growing years in California for malbec, which is notoriously subject to weather-related damage early in its growth.
Here, malbec continues to be used largely as a blender; as one sign of that, the examples found by Bush generally were made in small lots, not much more than 100 cases each, if that.
On top of that, the planting in California of malbec also known by several synonyms, including cot, auxerrois and pied rouge has not expanded dramatically. Though acreage devoted to malbec here has more than doubled over the past decade, it still stands at only 2,689 acres.
To select the malbecs they would take to France, Paul and Maggie Bush convened a tasting of the 16 candidates at the Camino residence of his parents, Dick and Leslie Bush, the founders of Madroña Vineyards on Apple Hill. The 16, grouped according to their region of origin Lodi, Napa Valley, the Sierra foothills and so forth ranged from light to heavy, dry to lightly sweet, rigid to relaxed.
By the end of the tasting, the consensus seemed to be that in California malbec is producing a wine that is deeply colored, more forgiving than demanding in its tannins, and while lush with fruitiness is difficult to link to other members of the fruit family, though variously evoking suggestions of cherries, blueberries and blackberries. While lusher and less astringent than Cahors, the California versions weren't as over-the-top bold as examples from Argentina, broadly speaking.
Overall, the California malbecs had the approachability of merlot with a couple of years of aging, though in weight, fruit and structure they were a bit more substantial.
The sampling from each region was really too small to pin down traits to distinguish one area from another. However, the two from the Central Coast were such letdowns that maybe malbec shouldn't be encouraged there, though the sampling, again, was small.
Where does malbec fit at the table? Think big, rich, earthy centerpieces, like cassoulet, duck, lamb and anything with blue cheese.
From the tasting, I had my favorites, most of which the Bushes are including in their trek to Cahors for the Fourth of July tasting:
Borra Vineyards 2010 Lodi Malbec ($20): A departure from the rest of the field in that it is a lighter interpretation, more of a picnic malbec than a release to pair with a hearty stew, despite its 14.8 percent alcohol. It's a slim malbec, but neither thin nor anemic, with a fresh, popping fruitiness that suggests tiny raspberries. It's dry and balanced, with light tannins.
Yorkville Cellars 2010 Mendocino County Rennie Vineyard Malbec ($28): One of the more exuberant and succulent malbecs in the tasting, its sweet abundant fruit is easily accessible beyond its reinforcing but not obstructionist tannins. A thread of tar adds intrigue to an unusually generous take on the varietal.
Rockpile Winery 2010 Sonoma County Buck Pasture Vineyard Malbec ($41): Another deeply colored, lushly fruity take, but with a current of minerality coursing through it that isn't quite overwhelmed by the spice from having been aged in mostly French oak barrels.
Chappellet Winery 2009 Napa Valley Malbec ($49): Perhaps the most elegant take on malbec in the tasting, with all its components coming together in one silken, unchallenging and subtly complex package. This is a malbec to start savoring before the duck is served and to continue enjoying after the table is cleared.
San Pasqual Winery 2010 Lake County Malbec ($25): The winery is in San Diego, the fruit was grown in Lake County, but malbec apparently travels well, to judge by this bright and vibrant take, which is unusually beefy and earthy for the varietal. It's a truly exotic malbec, but not without the varietal's telltale blueberry fruit.
Madroña Vineyards 2011 El Dorado County Malbec: Sure, it had the home-field advantage, though tasters didn't know its identity as they sipped through the selections from the Sierra foothills. On the other hand, it was the youngest malbec in the tasting, and isn't to be released until early next year.
Nevertheless, it was the friskiest malbec in the lineup, with an agility and a freshness suggestive of Beaujolais more than Cahors. The tannins will be even more pliable by the time it is released, no doubt revealing even more of the wine's invigorating spice.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.