Thursday, March 22, 2012

3. Malbec (William+Chris Wines)

3. Malbec

Oozing ripe berries
full, strong, about past their prime:
tangy, sweet darkness.

In early March, I attended the William+Chris Hye Society Malbec release party and vine planting. It is experiences like this that have provided me new insight into wine, in this case my favorite wine. I love Malbec; it is my favorite varietal. When I first really tried it, I fell in love. This once forgotten wine is having an extraordinary comeback, and I am happy to sing the praises of the Texas born Malbecs.

First things first, an introduction to the varietal. This French grape had a rough time. When the big attack on wine occurred -- one that was saved by the Americans -- Malbec took a hit, especially in Bordeaux. It didn't do well when American vines were brought into help (Wesley 44). But, a few decades back, Argentina decided to cultivate the grape. It has had great success and put Argentina on the wine map. Mendoza Valley Malbecs aren't hard to come by -- and at reasonable prices -- and they provide a great wine. Since then, it has been growing in popularity.

But what makes this wine popular? It's diverse. It has the fruit and sweetness found in lighter reds. In fact, berries are the predominant flavor associated with this. Many experts will say dark colored berries -- blues and blacks -- but I have come to think of it was a wine of darkened berries; in the best Malbec's I am reminded of my two favorite foods, blackberries and strawberries. The catch, to me, is that the wine reminds me of really ripe berries, berries that if they are not eaten now they'll be bad tomorrow. I love those berries because they are rich and taste of the darkness; it adds depth to the berries' sweetness. I see this in Malbecs. In addition to sweetness, Malbec's are strong. Like other full body reds, their tannins are noticeable. Here I agree with experts who say that the tannins provide weight for the sweetness (Wesley 51). The tannins aren't as strong as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they are there. I guess that's why I love Malbecs: the tannins are enough to create a wonderful balance to the fruit with out overpowering said fruit. In the end, this wine is great for pairing, and as is often my case, drinking on its own.

My introduction to Malbec was not through Argentina -- though I work hard for an Argentine education -- but from Texas. My first Malbec was from Becker Vineyards. Since then, I have gone out of my way to sample other Texas Malbecs. I do have to say that I will happily drink a Becker Malbec any day. But how is it that a grape, currently growing in the foothills of the Andes, is successful here? Malbec is a malleable grape. It can do well in most climes and is very adaptable. Specifically, it is a grape that can take on the worst that Texas can throw at it -- heat waves and droughts (Wesley 44). So its recent adaptation to the Texas Hill Country -- known for its colder winters (freezes are not uncommon, but we are talking cold for Texas), drought stricken lands (we are just coming out of one of our worst recorded droughts), and heat waves -- is no surprise. And just this month, I was happy that one of my favorite wineries, William+Chris, had decided to take a shot at it.

First let me preface this with the fact that William+Chris' current bottling of Malbec may be gone -- they had only a 120+ cases. But they have said that it will be back, so I hope next year's quantity will be much higher. For now we will talk about what sits before me, the first Malbec.

As the poem and the experts say, there is a level of sweetness to Malbec, and this one embodies that. When I first started this post I had just eaten really ripe strawberries, and this afternoon I enjoyed really ripe blackberries and raspberries. The wine shares the berries' qualities. This wine is a sweet, berry-ish wine. The first full taste is that of berries that are almost too ripe. They are a dark, deep sweetness, not the lighter vibrant sweetness we generally think of with strawberries. At the tip of my tongue, the sweetness is subtle, light, but most definitely there. But as the wine washes back just a little, the dark richness takes hold. The sweetness has depth; it is detailed. It slowly oozes out and saturates my taste buds. It fills my mouth and coats my tongue in a richness, also similar to a sweeter dark chocolate. In fact, at this point, I most reminded of dark chocolate strawberries that are almost no good. Both the strawberries and the wine cannot hold the sweetness back or keep it safe; the sweetness muscles its way through. The taste is bold and strong.

The flavor doesn't stop there. As I said early, this is a full body red, so the tannins are there. And like most tannins, they appear as the wine finishes its journey to completely fill my mouth. Here the sweetness gets its edge. The sweetness mellows and mixes with the acidic taste to round out the wine. But unlike bigger reds, again Cabernet Sauvignon is the main one, it doesn't have a overpowering tannin. It doesn't bombard the drinker with that strong sense of tobacco or oak. It is softer, gentler. This allows the wine to blend the flavors well, creating a wonderful balance. And, like other Malbecs, makes it eminently drinkable.

But, it does differ from both Argentine Malbecs and other Texas Malbecs. Texas wines are interesting creatures. They seem to have a hint of mineral in them. At some point there is this rich, strong flavor, like that of other minerals we use in cooking. Too me, it is like some of the richer smoked salts, that sort of sensation but not salty. I am guessing this is a result of the terroir in Texas -- we have heavy mineral deposits in out soil, and those minerals are usually near the surface. Growing up, I didn't get far with my digging before I reached a solid layer of caliche. This rock, often a major element in cement, is very common. Add to that the extensive limestone, quartz, clay, etc. found in the soil, and you can easily see where that mineral taste comes from. In Texas wines, it usually blends well with the reds' tannins, and blends best when the wine is aged in oak. It adds a new layer to the tannins, a turn or detail I haven't found in other wines. In the William+Chris Malbec, it is there but not strong. There is just enough there to notice it with a careful taste. In fact, I find it a great bridge for the fruit to reach the tannins. But unlikely other Texas Malbec's, like Becker, it is barely there. It is a hint that blends fluidly. I have to admit I have come to appreciate the mineral quality of Texas wines, but sometimes, it can be overpowering, especially once you have had several glasses. William+Chris controls the mineral well, not letting it take over. They do this in ALL of their wines (a testament to their carefully and thoughtful wine making), and it is at its best here (the current Hunter and Enchante are also great examples of this as well). In the end, I can drink this wine, glass after glass.

The William+Chris Malbec ranks with the best of this varietal. It is a great work of Texas wine making, but it is also a great Malbec. It is a delight. And like all Malbecs, the environment speaks in this wine. On the day I first enjoyed the wine, it was early Spring, a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The day was warming nicely. The sunshine danced among new green leaves in the small collection of shade tress on the property. The wine went well with this. The color shone brightly and was a nice match for the new green growths all around. The taste was as warm as the sunshine, and like the sun, slowly sunk in (I only needed one glass!). Of course, it was that warmth from the sunshine and the Malbec that made me not realize I was being bitten by an unknown bug -- the remnants of the bite just a trace several weeks later. I can't recommend this Malbec enough, and I can't recommend any decent Malbec enough.

Works Cited
Wesley, Nathan. "Aging Malbec." Wine Spectator 15 Dec. 2011: 51.
Wesley, Nathan. "Southern Siren." Wine Spectator 15 Dec. 2011: 38-41.

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