Defining varietal

Malbec is famous in Argentina, but its acclaim is growing in Oregon, too, thanks to local grape growers and wine producers who are putting more bottles of the affordable, food-friendly red wine on shelves.

Randy Gold of Pacific Crest Vineyard Services in Talent planted malbec vines in the 1990s and now supplies fruit to five wineries, including Gus Janeway of Velocity Cellars, who has been producing malbec since 2000 and selling his Velocity 2008 Malbec ($24) and Velo 2010 Malbec ($18) at wine shops and the new DANCIN Vineyards in Medford.

The grape got a big push here two decades ago by the late Sara Powell, one of the region's respected vintners. At the time, she was winemaker at Foris Vineyards in Cave Junction, and a believer that Bordeaux varietals could thrive here. Achieving success with merlot and cabernet franc, she was eager to experiment more.

She asked Gold about growing malbec. Today, he recalls, "I knew nothing of the variety." So he got cuttings and advice from grower Arnold Kohnert, who was struggling to grow it at his Pompadour Vineyard.

Ted Gerber, who owns Foris, grew the cuttings, and Gold planted them in a field on his property. Despite Gold's attention and installing a large lyre trellis to encourage the vines to produce, he admits, "We struggled with this planting for several years, growing more leaves than fruit."

In the late '90s, Gold invited Richard Smart, a renowned Australian viticultural scientist, to the vineyard. Smart offered suggestions, Gold implemented them and the vines started to yield more fruit.

When Powell became winemaker at RoxyAnn Winery in Medford, no one at Foris was interested in malbec. But Janeway, then winemaker at Paschal Winery in Talent, bought some of the grapes for Paschal's Quartet wine.

When Janeway started his own Velocity label in 2002, he asked Gold to plant additional clones of malbec and become his exclusive supplier. Now, Gold has 6 acres of malbec growing, and this month Janeway will release a 2011 Malbec Rose.

"What inspired me initially about malbec was how it brought such unusual and intense aromas — especially plum and cassis — to the otherwise fairly traditionally styled Bordeaux blends of the Rogue Valley," says Janeway, who lives in Ashland. "More plantings on a variety of sites, plus some clone and rootstock experimentation, showed us that malbec had real potential to the point where, in a few short years, it has become one of this region's defining varietals."

Thanks to Gold, there are more malbec clones and wines in the area. Today, Dana Campbell Vineyards, which is opening its Ashland tasting room in the fall, sold out its 2008 Malbec but has a 2009 ($28) to replace it. EdenVale Winery sells a 2005 reserve ($39) in its Ashland Enoteca. Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland has released its first-year bottling, a 2010 ($25), while Ledger David Cellars' first malbec, a 2011 vintage, is currently in barrel in Talent.

Recently, Laura Lotspeich of Trium Wines in Talent hosted an eight-course dinner in which she paired imported and Oregon malbecs with lemon-chili chicken, shrimp pil-pil, lamb roast, pork loin, beef short ribs in paprika-molé sauce and venison roast in blueberry sauce.

She ended the feast with blue-cheese cheesecake, arugula and blackberries served with Velocity 2008.

"Malbec is a hot variety," says Gold, who attended the dinner. "People are looking for something different all the time. And they get that with malbec."

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