Devium winemaker Keith Johnson. 
##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

Gonzo Sparkler

Devium pét-nat Malbec a high-elevation hit

By Michael Alberty

When Keith Johnson told his wife he was making a “one-off” sparkling wine from Malbec grapes, she told him to “not even bother bringing it home.” Yet he persisted. Shelley Reese fell hard for her husband’s 2019 Devium Wine Lewis Peak Vineyard Pétillant Naturel. Now, Johnson has to make it every year.

Devium is Latin for “wayward” or “remote and secluded.” What an apt brand name for a person who makes a naturally sparkling wine with Malbec grapes plucked from high in the sky in the Blue Mountains near Dixie, Washington.

Lewis Peak Vineyard is dry-farmed and planted with equal parts Malbec and Riesling. Some of the rows cross the 3,000-foot mark, making it the highest elevation vineyard I know of in the state of Washington. The vineyard is owned by Benjamin Sinner, the founder and CEO of The WestOne Group, a marketing company specializing in agribusiness sales, mergers and acquisitions.

Sinner found the property nearly two decades ago while taking a leisurely Sunday drive in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. “I was moving my business interests from Seattle to the Walla Walla Valley. My wife insisted I had to find a place to live that reminded her of her native Wales,” Sinner explains.

“When I found this scenic hilltop rising up like an island from a sea of wheat, I knew this was the place.”

Inspired by local wine industry friends, Sinner decided to push the viticulture envelope by planting grapevines at an elevation where even the local deer occasionally get vertigo. Planting grapes at 3,000 feet above sea level has certain advantages in avoiding the cold air drainage issues, warm temperatures and precipitation shortages faced by vineyards planted on the valley floor.

The challenges of planting grapes in the foothills of the Blues include those pesky deer and getting grapes to ripen. The 2019 growing season in eastern Washington came to a chilly end, and the Malbec grapes Johnson purchased from Sinner didn’t ripen to his satisfaction. Johnson abandoned his plan to make a still red wine.

Instead of giving up, Johnson called an audible. He decided to use the Malbec fruit to make a “nothing added, nothing taken away” natural wine that packs a bit of fizz. The Devium pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, was born.

The traditional Champagne method uses commercial yeasts and sugar to trigger a secondary fermentation. Pét-nat is made by merely allowing the initial fermentation to finish in the bottle. The carbon dioxide trapped inside provides the fizz.

The Malbec grapes were picked in late October and delivered to the Sleight of Hand Cellars facility in Walla Walla. That is where Johnson makes his Devium wines while working with Trey Busch and Jerry Solomon as part of the Sleight of Hand winemaking team.

Johnson lightly stomped the whole-cluster grapes in their bins before pressing them straight to neutral oak barrels the next day. Fermentation began spontaneously without the addition of any nutrients or yeast. The wine fermented in barrel for approximately two weeks before hand-bottling. No sulfites were added at any point in the process. On Jan. 15, 2020, Johnson disgorged the wine to remove most of the heavy sediment.

The result of this minimalist process is a deep magenta-colored wine, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. This is devium on steroids.

I popped the crown cap and used my pinky to clear a bit of sediment to pour the wine into my glass. This wine is funky, gunky and fun as a monkey. If you do not like to get messy while having fun, go buy a Prosecco.

When I swirl this wine in my glass, I can smell persimmons, rooibos tea, wet concrete and a sweaty/earthy combination suggesting some type of primal activity had just concluded. I’m clearly in uncharted waters here, but I’m warming up to this sparkling Malbec experiment. 

The first sip was tart and frisky. Little bubbles scoot across my tongue while brambly blackberries and white peaches hold court. Dried rose hips flirt with dark chocolate in the background. With 12% alcohol, the wine shows a freshness and energy that will snap you out of any shelter-in-place-induced stupor.

I enjoyed the heck out of drinking this wine with goat cheese and Mama Lil’s Peppers spread on bruschetta. The 2019 Devium Wine Lewis Peak Vineyard Pétillant Naturel is a mighty fine bargain at $24.

Johnson made only 45 cases of this sparkling Malbec born of necessity. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, it will likely be sold out. But don’t fear if you miss out: Johnson now plans to make this wine every year. Ms. Reese wouldn’t have it any other way.

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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