JP Valot, Valcan Cellars

Malbec Unplugged

Valot goes “Bare” with nation’s first white Malbec

By Michael Alberty

Consider MTV’s “Unplugged” a cautionary tale for people making white wines with red grapes. Stripping down something familiar to its basics can result in Korn (awful) or Nirvana (transcendent). The new white Malbec from Valcan Cellars fits happily in the latter category.   

If you’ve never tasted a white Malbec, you’re not alone. There are as many “Jumanji” movies (four) in the world today as there are white Malbec producers. Valcan Cellars recently joined the club with its 2019 “Bare” White Malbec ($22).

“Bare” is the first white Malbec released by an American winery. No surprise it’s made by a guy born and raised in the modern mecca of Malbec: Mendoza, Argentina. 

Juan Pablo “JP” Valot’s ancestors packed their love of growing grapes and making wine when they left Italy and France for Argentina over a century ago. Many of Valot’s relatives, including his grandfather and father, worked in Argentina’s wine industry.

Valot is, however, the first member of his family to ponder making a white Malbec. “I’ve wanted to do this for a while now, but I wondered if the reason I didn’t see anybody making one was that it was a bad idea, or if they just hadn’t thought of it yet,” Valot said.

Another reason Valot hesitated had to do with Brix, the measurement of a grape’s sugar level. He needs low Brix numbers to give his white Malbec elevated acidity and lower alcohol. The Malbec grapes he received from Southern Oregon over the years were typically in the 24 to 25 Brix range, too high for Valot’s elusive great white Malbec.

In 2019, he finally struck white gold. Valot was introduced to a Rogue Valley vineyard owner hoping to unload his Malbec crop. “The grapes were picked in October, but the tests said 20 Brix. The seeds were brown, and there was a lot of flavor. I couldn’t believe my luck,” Valot said.

Valot didn’t know why the Brix numbers were so low that late in the season, but he suspects a combination of cooler temperatures, rain and possibly overcropping. No matter the reason, he wasn’t looking this gift horse in the mouth.

Valcan Cellars 2019 "Bare" White Malbec ##Photo by Marcus Larson

Valot makes his Valcan Cellars wines at Silvan Ridge Winery in Eugene, where he has been head winemaker since 2012. “They allow me to make my wines under their bond, which is a sweet deal,” he said.

“Bare” is produced in what Valot describes as his “minimalistic” style. “I don’t like to modify acidity or use any additives,” he said. The Malbec grapes were gently pressed, with the juice and skins remaining in contact for less than an hour. The wine rested in stainless steel tanks for a few months before filtration and bottling.

Unfortunately, Dr. Doris Cancel-Tirado hated the new wine. This posed a problem since Dr. Cancel-Tirado is Valot’s winery partner and wife.

Rattled, Valot conducted market research by offering free samples of the white Malbec to tasting room visitors. After an overwhelmingly positive response, Valot labeled the wine and released it in March.

The wine’s washed-out Champagne color makes it appear as if the glass is blushing. Scents of cantaloupe and grapefruit duel while traces of butterscotch, white gardenias and yellow sidewalk chalk stand by. Valot says the aromatics remind him of Sauvignon Blanc. It reminds me of an early morning stroll through an open-air fruit market in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Each sip delivers something new. The initial flavor wave features ripe nectarines and lemongrass. The next taste shifts from stone to tropical fruit. Then your palate is thrown an Orange Creamsicle curveball. As the wine warms to room temperature, the flavorful floor show keeps evolving. The zippy acidity makes the experience nice and lively.  

I paired “Bare” with empanadas in honor of Valot’s Argentine roots. The homemade pizza dough pockets were filled with cubed beef, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, scallions and healthy doses of cumin and Italian red pepper flakes, most definitely a pairing I look forward to repeating.

Will this wine remind you in any way of a red Malbec? No.

Valot says skin contact gives red Malbec aromas and flavors of wildflowers and violets. He describes his white Malbec as a “naked knight.” At first, I thought he meant “night,” so I reluctantly asked for an explanation. “When you strip a knight of his armor, you won’t recognize him. The same is true of Malbec grapes,” Valot said.

I’m happy to report Valot’s partner finally saw the white Malbec light. “Dr. Cancel-Tirado is in love now. She’s so in love that she wants to keep all the remaining cases, but I’m not letting her,” Valot said.

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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