2020 was a vintage that looked near perfect in Washington going into the second week of September. In fact, it looked like it might be among the best vintages the state had seen in the last 20 years.
Then smoke from wildfires in California, Oregon, and, to a much lesser extent, Washington blanketed the west coast. This both stalled fruit maturation and led to concerns about potential smoke impact on the resulting wines. Ultimately, what looked to be an easy, textbook growing season turned into a nerve-wracking one for growers and winemakers alike.
The extent to which smoke might or might not have impacted red wines in Washington in 2020 remains to be fully seen. Many of the wines have not yet been released.
Others felt confident they could stand behind their wines, and the vintage thus far has produced some beautiful offerings from Washington. Smoke impact in wine is a complex, nuanced subject, where smoke in the air doesn’t necessarily mean wines will be affected. (Read my article about some of smoke’s intricacies.)
Still, even in cases where winemakers might feel their wines weren’t impacted in terms of aromas and flavors, the smoke very much affected winemaking decisions. In some cases it changed when fruit was picked, how it was picked, and how it was handled in the winery. For this reason, while the anxiety for growers in many cases ended once fruit was picked, for winemakers, those anxieties very much continued for weeks, months, or longer.
“Blending the 2020s was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” says Peter Devison, co-owner and winemaker at Devison Vintners. Devison made his first wine in 2002. “I went back to the drawing board on these wines for about a year,” he says.
The concern? Trying to make sure that there wasn’t any smoke impact on the wines.
“We were adamant about not including anything that had a hint of smoke,” Devison says. “We also still had to maintain the quality and character we’ve been establishing over the last three years.”(Devison Vintners was founded in 2019).
At present it looks like mission accomplished for Devison’s fall releases from the 2020 vintage. In fact, they are among the best wines Devison has produced to date, which is an increasingly high bar.
In other news, the winery moved into a new tasting room south of downtown Walla Walla in April of 2021. Long-time visitors to the valley will remember this as the former site of now defunct Hence Cellars. More recently, it has been home to Rasa Vineyards, which shares the space with Devison.
Below are Peter Devison’s thoughts on his 2020 fall release reds. My tasting notes and reviews are at the bottom of the article.
Devison 2020 Beneath the Stones Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley
The 2020 vintage of Beneath the Stones includes a new clone of Syrah for the winery, Clone 470. This wine is an equal mix of 470 and the Phelps clone the winery has traditionally used from this site.
“I get a little more of a darker core of fruit,” Devison says of Clone 470. “It’s more fruit-driven than the Phelps [clone], a little more muscle too tannin-wise.”
The wine comes in at a cool 13% alcohol. The reason? The smoke.
“We didn’t get the sugar accumulation because of the lack of UV light,” Devison says. “So even though I don’t find the smoke affected the wine aromatically, this just naturally came out at 13[% alcohol].”
The wine was fermented on skins for an average of three weeks, then pressed straight to concrete vessels and oak puncheons for aging. “I get this steeped plum, fresh cut herbs, and this beautiful crushed rock [aroma] without being muddled or funky,” Devison says of the wine. “There’s some black tea leaf, some citrus rind. To me, it’s got everything in there.”
Devison 2020 GPR Columbia Valley
GPR is Devison’s entry level or glass pour red wine – hence the name. It’s also an example where rushing to get label approval in time for bottling meets reality. The blend listed on the label is incorrect (see the actual blend below in my tasting notes)
“Literally two days before I put [the wine] in the bottle, I decided to declassify one of the barrels of Syrah,” says Devison.
This is top quality fruit for a wine at this price. Grapes came from Boushey (Yakima Valley), Lawrence (Royal Slope), StoneTree (Wahluke Slope), and a pinch from Les Collines (Walla Walla Valley).
“I think it’s a beautiful Rhône blend,” Devison says. “It’s got class, but it’s country rustic. It’s not as glossy as your $50, $60 great Rhône blends from Washington, but it’s got all of the concentration and structure.”
Devison 2020 Above the Flood Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley
This is another example where the smoky fall affected decision making. The advice to winemakers in vintages where smoke might be a concern is to limit whole cluster usage and also decrease fermentation time.
Devison took this to heart. For the first time, he didn’t use any whole cluster when fermenting this wine. Though a change in technique from previous vintages, Devison is pleased with the results.
“There’s more focused fruit without the stems,” he says. “It’s the direction I’ve moved going forward on this wine [in subsequent vintages.]”
The Above the Flood is always the first wine Devison blends. “To me, it’s like a deeper, darker, earthier version of the GPR. The aromas have pepper and purple hard candy. There’s dried flower [and] potpourri. It’s bigger, more structured. Opulent.”
Devison 2020 Malbec Southwind Vineyard Walla Walla Valley
The 2020 Devison Malbec has another vintage-specific angle. This being 2020, where everything was harder to acquire, Devison didn’t use any new oak on the wine. This is all second fill French. The wine was aged on lees all the way to bottling and was never racked. (Read my article about the purpose of racking.)
Devison is quickly establishing a reputation for creating the best Malbec in Washington. There’s the plushness of fruit one expects from the variety, but there’s also the acidic verve of this hillside site, with impressive tannin structure that is rarely seen in Malbec.
“This is, I think, the most beautiful iteration that we’ve made of this wine,” Devison says. “It’s got so much tension, and so much structure that you don’t normally get in Malbec. This block is so distinct.”
Devison says of the aromas and flavors “It’s very pure blackberry, purple flower, and licorice.”
At Northwest Wine Report, all scores come from blind tastings in varietal sets. Read more about this site’s process for rating and reviewing wines. Read about the Northwest Wine Report rating system and special designations. Read about how to interpret scores.