As most of you know, two years ago Maggie, our girls and I spent about 3 months in the Lot, southwest France enjoying the people, the food and the Malbecs of this incredible area. Not only does this region remind us fondly of the Sierra Foothills, but the main “city” of Cahors, filled with its 14th century buildings, hosts some of the greatest Malbecs we have ever tasted.
So when we were contacted last April by Jérémy Arnaud, the marketing director of Cahors wines, with the task of representing California Malbecs in a grand tasting in France, needless to say we jumped at the chance. My duty was to source between 6 and 12 different California Malbecs showcasing the essence (terroir) of our great state.
We cannot lie. The complimentary trip to France was certainly a draw, especially with the opportunity to pour our Malbecs for a French palate. And add to this the fact that Cahors is the origin of Malbec!
But truly our excitement also comes from delving more deeply into the variety of Malbec and its expression (expressions) here in California.
Finding such California wines was half the challenge. If successful, the wineries of Cahors would ship over a case of each wine (a small fortune in itself) to France for the tasting on July 4th. Paired with Jazz music and barbecue, this is to be a celebration of American and French cooperation with something distinctly Californian.
The first step…sourcing the California Malbec.
I knew this part was going to be an uphill battle. First of all, we needed to find California Malbecs. Madroña makes one, we knew, but who else around the state has ventured into this great variety. We scoured the web looking for articles, webpages, stores, anywhere to find wineries to contact.
Next, we called celebrated wine shops in Napa and Sonoma searching for suggestions of great California Malbec. Interestingly, it was difficult to find California Malbec represented in their shops.
Finally, in desperation, I went to a large “box store” for wines and beers, seeing if there were any other Malbecs we missed. The store was huge, with literally 30 feet of just Malbecs. Unfortunately, there was only one from California and one from France. All the other wines were from Argentina. Amazing.
In the end, I contacted about 35 wineries to donate a bottle of Malbec to our initial tasting. To be honest, I didn’t have much to entice wineries to participate in the program. If their wines were chosen, I would be asking for 12 bottles to be donated to ship to France. In return, there is very little potential for any sales of California Malbec in France. In addition, there’s probably very little marketing potential with this either. Instead, the idea is simply to help spread the word that California makes great Malbec.
So to be blunt, I was asking wineries to donate between $325 to $780 of wine for a tasting in a market where no one has heard of their winery nor would they be able to purchase the wine. It’s a hard sell!
Needless to say, a few of the wineries I contacted had no interest in investing building the name of California Malbec. And I can’t blame them.
As for the larger wineries I wanted to include, I simply couldn’t negotiate the bureaucracy to find the appropriate person to talk to.
And when I was successful, the wineries I contacted either didn’t make a Malbec in 2010 or 2011 (because of the short harvest and needing this inky black wine for their Cab blends), or they no longer made a Malbec at all.
To my surprise, however, a wonderful selection of wineries were very excited to be a part of showcasing what we do here in the Golden State, contributing both wine and information. In the end, we gathered 16 different wines to taste in regional flights.
Now, we’ve put many different blind tastings together in our short lives, and invariably there are some very disappointing wines in the flights. But of the tasting we had, there were no poorly made wines, and all the wines were respectable. So our task was to choose wines for the expression of Malbec rather than just all the well-made wines. This would exclude any wine with a dominant style of oak or a sweet palate.
The final selection included seven wines from throughout the state.
Yorkville Cellars 2010 (Yorkville Highlands)
Madrona Vineyard 2011 (El Dorado)
Windwalker Vineyard and Winery 2009 (El Dorado)
Mauritson Rockpile 2010 (Rockpile – Sonoma County)
Chappellet 2009 (Napa Valley)
Krutz Family Cellars 2009 (Napa Valley)
San Pasqual Winery 2010 (Lake County)
We’ve subsequently sent a case of each over to France, now resting for the tasting on July 4th next week. If you are wondering if we came up with one individual character expressing California Malbec, I don’t think we’re there yet. If anything, I think we were shown that California has a plethora of unique microclimates and soil conditions giving us a wonderful selection of characters.
Tied together, though, all California Malbecs (from our tasting) have great density of color, slightly rounded tannins, and a dark berry fruit character.
Give me a bit more time as I prep my presentation for the people of Cahors, and I will certainly see (and taste) more commonalities. And I can’t wait to hear comments from a region’s palate, which has 1,000+ years of experience tasting the variety. In the end, I expect we will be learning a lot about our Malbecs when a fresh new set of French taste buds sample our wines. For that information, you’ll just have to wait!