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Malbec Bonanza in Sonoma County

Once I was wowed by a Malbec. It was only a $3.99 buy from Trader Joe’s, sure, but gushing so with purple fruit, I thought to myself, “So what are the good wines down there like?”

Down there was Argentina, and within a year or so I landed in upside-down wine country to investigate, with mixed results. Recently, I found a bonanza of excellent Malbec right here in Sonoma County.

Malbec is the fifth wheel of the classic grapes of Bordeaux, but it found room to roam in Argentina. It was widely planted in the 1800s, and became Argentina’s signature export varietal in the 1990s, sort of hopping in behind the Australian Shiraz boom.

In Sonoma County, winemakers like to play with a few percent of Malbec here and there in their blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Inspired by the Argentine’s success, they’re also releasing some single varietal Malbec.

You’ll still find imports for cheaper, but then again, you can also get a certain California Cabernet for $1.99 … the top-rated imports are priced comparably with Sonoma County wines.

When you’re firing up the parrilla — as they call the barbecue grill in Argentina — this summer, try a bottle of Malbec in place of Cabernet Sauvignon. Intense and tannic, but generally juicier, Malbec pinch-hits for both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Windsor Oaks 2012 Block 35 Chalk Hill Malbec ($35)
Give this time to open up, and the intensely grapey fruit will emerge from its cage of toasted oak and pencil lead — attention, Bordeaux fans. Juicy, plumy, and palate-puckering, the finish is ripe for grass-fed steaks slathered with chimichurri sauce.

Chateau St. Jean 2012 Estate Sonoma Valley Malbec ($50)
This wine holds its fruit closer to the vest, but it’s a fine vest embroidered with charred oak, toasted coconut, and hints of Cab-like cassis and chocolate. On the palate, this is what wine critics are talking about with that wacky term, “creamy oak,” infused with dried blueberries. Texturally, it’s clearly a thing of substance and quality, but doesn’t overwhelm. If you have Jordan Cab fans in your life, this is the Malbec to introduce to them.

Chateau St. Jean 2012 Alexander Valley Malbec ($40)
Here the fruit does come squeaking through after some time in the glass, sweet, soft and Merlot-like with a hint of raspberry over purple, cassis fruit. The aroma sticks to the toasty oak plan, while the finish has a firm grip, indeed.

Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection California Malbec ($19)
I like the savory, smoked olive and stewed fruit aspect of this aroma, but when it turns a bit horse-blankety now and then, I get a bad memory of the horse that threw me into the cactus desert in Mendoza, Argentina. It’s soft and easy-drinking, with enough plum and licorice flavor to enjoy with herbed shish kebab.

Find more info about Sonoma County wineries here.

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