Riesling. Pinot noir. Cabernet franc. Malbec?
Believe it or not, this wine list darling — a welcome alternative for red wine lovers weary of cabernet and zinfandel — has made its way to Michigan. Whether or not it will take off is another story.
A quick history: While much of the straight varietal malbecs appearing on restaurant wine lists hail from South America, the grape actually traces its roots to France. According to Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, malbec originated in the southwestern French town of Cahors, where the grape is called “côt.” In France’s famed Bordeaux region, Malbec is one of six grapes permitted in a true Bordeaux blend, but takes a backseat there to cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot.
European immigrants introduced malbec to Argentina in the 1820s, according to MacNeil. The Court of Master Sommeliers reports that it is now the most planted grape in Argentina’s Mendoza region.
The French Connection
The French connection is what prompted co-owner Paul Hamelin to plant 1 acre of malbec in Verterra Winery’s vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula in 2012.
“Malbec is actually a Bordeaux grape, although most people think it originated in Argentina or Chile,” Hamelin says. “Since it is a red from Bordeaux on the 45th Parallel, and we are also on the 45th Parallel with somewhat similar growing conditions to Bordeaux, we thought we would try an experiment: Plant some.”
Verterra has primarily used the grape for blending thus far. The latest vintage of its 2014 Chaos Red Cuvee is nearly half malbec culled from the vineyards there. The grapes supply “a very round, juicy, lush mouthfeel,” Hamelin says.
Experimentation in the name of Bordeaux is also what drove Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs to begin dabbling in malbec a decade and a half ago.
“My dad, Tom Fricke, planted them as an experiment, to see if they would grow here, and because he wanted to have all five of the classical Bordeaux red varieties,” says Katie Maurer, the winery’s co-owner.
Domaine Berrien currently incorporates all of its estate-grown malbec into Crown of Cab, a Bordeaux-style blend that also contains cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and petit verdot. The exact composition varies year to year, but malbec typically constitutes a percentage in the single digits.
“It is such a small component of the blend — usually 2 to 5 percent — that we say it is just like a little bit of spice to make the blend more interesting,” Maurer says.
On the other end of the spectrum, the winemakers at nearby Dablon Vineyards in Baroda are producing a straight varietal malbec from their 1.2 acres of the grape. Winemaker Rudy Shafer says it’s “become one of our most sought-after wines for consumers.”
Just down the street from Domaine Berrien, Lemon Creek Winery is using malbec in straight varietal wines and as part of their Meritage (North American Bordeaux-style wine) blends. As with the Maurers, the allure of adding to their repertoire of Bordeaux varietals prompted the Lemons to plant an acre of malbec in 2010, says co-owner and winemaker Jeff Lemon.
The Court of Master Sommeliers describes the flavors and aromas of classic Argentinian malbec as blackberry, cherry, plum, currant, raisins, blueberry, boysenberry, and raspberry, sometimes with hints of fresh mint, tobacco, black pepper, licorice, smoke, bitter chocolate, and coffee. It typically is medium to medium-plus in acidity and tannin, and is usually on the higher end in terms of alcohol levels.
The Court asserts that “the grape achieves its most classic and identifiable varietal in Mendoza, offering brambly black and red mountain fruit tones, rich and robust texture and sweet floral tones.”
With only a single vintage under his belt, Hamelin says it’s difficult to pinpoint the flavor profile of Northern Michigan malbecs. Still, he adds, it’s unlikely that they’ll “resemble the dense, dark, thick, brooding malbecs of the Southern Hemisphere, as we do not receive the same long, hot summers that occur in Chile or Argentina, where you get almost overripe fruit.”
Indeed, Mendoza has an arid climate with few temperature extremes — a sharp contrast to Michigan. In fact, most of Argentinian wine country is dry and desert-like, with an annual average of 320 days of intense sunlight and 8-10 inches of rainfall, according to MacNeil.
Meanwhile, downstate, Shafer describes Dablon’s Malbec as full bodied, with deep color and moderate tannins.
“Ours is unique to Michigan, due to the climate, but shares some common characteristics with Argentinian and French types,” he says. “Our malbec has chocolate on the nose, which our guests really enjoyed.”
Lemon compares his malbecs to those hailing from France.
“People can expect the usual plum, fruity or jammy ripeness of a malbec — perhaps not quite as ripe as Argentina — but still an excellent balance of flavor and aroma,” he says.
Malbec’s Future Here?
What does the future hold for Michigan-grown malbec? Lemon says he doubts Michigan will ever be known for the grape, but he believes its usage will continue to grow.
Malbec is “bud tender, similar to — or perhaps moreso — than merlot,” he says. “If not given the proper care and attention, it won’t produce a good crop. Record-setting temperatures from the last two winters certainly hasn’t helped.”
Of the 100 vines planted in Domaine Berrien’s vineyards in 2001, about half remain. Maurer doesn’t foresee that increasing anytime soon, citing the winter die-off and difficulty ripening.
“I think the jury is still out on whether malbec can be successfully grown in Michigan,” she says. “Dablon and Lemon Creek will be able to weigh in on that in five to 10 years.”
While Hamelin agrees that lack of winter hardiness may be “the Achilles heel” for malbec in his area, he says increasing accolades for the region and state have given winemakers and winery owners the courage to go out on a limb.
“We are just ecstatic about the quality of wines coming out of northern Michigan, and the international recognition we are receiving,” he says. “Recently, our area was identified as one of the top 10 upcoming wine regions in the world. With this kind of recognition, it gives vintners like myself the courage to take bold steps … like planting the first northern Michigan malbec.”
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, tasting rooms operated in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and (coming in Summer 2016) Auburn Hills. Contact her at email@example.com.