Winery/Vineyard: Sweet Oaks Wine, GLHF Vineyard
Product/Varietal: 100% Malbec
AVA on Bottle: Temecula Valley
Winemaker: Mark Horvath
How They Describe It
Light shimmering ruby red in color. The aroma of dusty black cherry takes center stage, accented by violets and a woodsy toast from new French oak barrels. A bit of fresh cracked black pepper and well-worn leather round out the nose. Fresh cherries and spice dominate the palate with a round, glossy mouth feel. Tannin on the finish lengthens the wine and adds seriousness. This Malbec is crafted in a very French style — delicate and nuanced with medium body and terrific acidity. It would pair nicely with dark poultry such as duck or ostrich and can also complement lamb or pork loin. Mild, nutty cheeses would also work well.
How I Describe It
The Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec looks remarkably young for having aged in barrel and bottle for the last four years. A deep purple-ruby, the color largely follows what’s expected of a properly made Malbec.
On the nose, the Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec exudes aromas of cranberry, tart cherry, and blackberry — an interesting assortment which runs the gamut on Malbecs across multiple climates. The new French oak barrels contribute spicy notes of cedar, clove, and nutmeg. And a hint of bleu cheese chronicles the winemaker’s use of yeast during fermentation. Rose, green bell pepper, and a touch of black pepper round out the wine’s spicy scents.
Black currant and blackberry meld together with cranberry, tart red cherry, and ripe strawberry. Oak and yeast produce and interesting combination of vanilla, pastry, clove, and freshly cut wood. Subtle spicier notes of eucalyptus, black pepper, green bell pepper, and asparagus layer the wine and add appeal.
Keeping in the French style, the 2016 Malbec is very dry, but its high acid is fairly unique. Medium-plus tannins from new oak and skin contact are nicely balanced. And at a surprisingly sparse 13.1% ABV, the medium-level alcohol is on the low side even by global norms (we’ll cover why this might be in the Why Is This Wine Special section). Flavor intensity is a nice medium-plus, and the finish is an agreeable medium.
Why is This Wine Special?
First, a disclosure: I used to work for Sweet Oaks Wine. Consequently, I know their 2016 Malbec was part of their inaugural release. And for a first shot, they did an outstanding job.
Let’s first cover the issue left outstanding above: the 13.1% alcohol. Alcohol is created when yeast ferments sugars which develop in the grape berries. The sugarier the grape, the more potential alcohol which can be produced. Additionally, sugar is a byproduct of photosynthesis, so where there is more sunlight, there tends to be more photosynthesis — and more sugar. To that end, grapes in cold climates usually take a longer time to develop sugars, and ripen fully with fairly moderate levels, producing low- and medium-alcohol wines. By contrast, grapes from warmer, sunnier climates develop sugars easily. So dry wines produced there usually have fairly high ABV.
In Argentina and southwest France — with somewhat cooler climates — most Malbecs start at 13.5% ABV. However, it’s not uncommon for Temecula wines to have alcohol content in the high 14’s and even over 15 percent.
So what happened with the Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec? The first possibility is an earlier harvest. When grapes are harvested early, the time to product alcohol-creating sugars is cut short. However, harvesting early also reduces the time grapes need to create molecules which give wine interesting, complex flavors; in many cases, these wines have flat, monotone palates. But the Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec’s has nicely layered flavors, so while the grapes might have been picked on the early end of harvest season, they likely weren’t harvested too early.
The second possibility has to do with a lesser-known aspect of the Temecula Valley AVA: it has lowlands and highlands, each with strikingly different microclimates. The valley lowlands display characteristics common to most Temecula wines, and make superb Rhône varietals. By contrast, the highlands of De Luz and La Cresta are cooler and foggier for longer periods of time during the day. In fact, the climate is so different, the owner of Sweet Oaks began the process to designate a portion of these highlands as its own distinct AVA. The grapes for the 2016 Malbec came from Good Luck Have Fun (GLHF) Vineyards, in De Luz. So it’s also very possible the cooler highland climate allowed the Malbec to fully ripen without overloading the grapes with sugar.
Now that that’s aside, there’s one other unique aspect of the wine worth covering: the acid. Traditionally, Malbecs are kind of mellow wines, with medium-level acid. The version Sweet Oaks produced is fairly tart. While atypical for the varietal, it actually adds a really nice flavor, and goes well with the fruit profile. In fact, in many ways the wine reminds me of a Central Coast Pinot Noir. This is less shocking considering the winemaker. Sweet Oaks’ ownership hired Mark Horvath to produce its wines. However, he cut his teeth as one of the early pioneers of — wait for it — Central Coast Pinot Noirs. His family winery, Crawford Family Wines, makes some of the best Ste. Rita Hills Pinot Noir you’ll ever have. It will be interesting to see what Horvath does with future Sweet Oaks vintages.
Last, for the sake of transparency, the bottle described here was donated by Sweet Oaks Wine. Other than providing the wine itself, there was no exchange of anything which would have influenced or unfairly biased this review.
When & How I Would Drink It
Malbec is ideally paired with leaner meats, and this wine is no exception. Turkey, lamb, pork, and chicken are ideal proteins. More sharply flavored cheeses, like bleu cheese, work well too. Peering through the internet, apparently ostrich also goes well, but I can’t personally verify that.
Because of the higher acid, the Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec is pleasantly refreshing. With the warmer months coming up, it would accompany an afternoon barbecue outstandingly — even better when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions let up, and we can have friends over again!
How to Get It
Bottle Price: $45
Cases Produced: unknown
Have you tried the Sweet Oaks 2016 Malbec? How did the tasting notes compare with your experience? Leave a comment below.