I can remember the first time I heard of a place called Alsace. I was sitting in my middle school world-history course with some teacher whose name I’ve long forgotten, and we began to talk about a region called the Alsace-Lorraine. At that point, it was a vague strip of land which seemed tiny and insignificant in scale compared to the European continent surrounding it, and I remember wondering just why the French and Germans both cared so much about the place.
I’ll come clean and say that my understanding of the significance of the Alsatian role in geopolitical history hasn’t evolved much since then, but I have come to deeply appreciate Alsace’s rolling hills of vineyards and the truly unique wines produced by some of the wine world’s most interesting people there.
One of those people is certainly a man named Jean-Michel Deiss, who, along with his partner Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, run Domaine Marcel Deiss, a domaine started by Jean-Michel’s father in 1947. Marcel Deiss was the direct descendant of a family of winegrowers who settled in the Alsatian town of Bergheim in 1744 when it was part of France (arriving before it was part of Germany, and then part of France, and then part of Germany, and then part of France again — over the next 300 years).
Jean-Michel Deiss is an iconoclast in the world of wine. Just the sort of troublemaker I enjoy, walking the line between the wild fanatic and the quiet genius. Deiss runs strongly against the grain of Alsatian and French winemaking tradition in nearly everything he does, making him a magnet for criticism over any number of different things.
Alsace is one of the few regions of France where it is not only legal but also tradition that wines be produced primarily as single varietals and labeled as such (as opposed to being labeled by vineyard and appellation as elsewhere in the country). Deiss, however, believes firmly in that vineyard expression trumps varietal expression, raising furors over his decision to label single varietal wines with the names of his vineyards and to produce field blends that are sold with only the name of the vineyard on the label.
In addition to boycotting the AOC standards for the region, Deiss is also a fervent devotee of biodynamic viticulture.The domaine has been fully biodynamic since 1997, and was farmed organically for the 20 years prior to that. His devotion to sometimes unorthodox field blends (when was the last time you had a combination of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Beurot?) is related to his philosophy of viticulture. He has been known to claim that one of the main reasons he does field blends of grapes like Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer is that in his vineyards they all ripen simultaneously (which, if true, would be quite unusual). Irrespective of their ripening dates, simply the fact that he continues to blend Riesling (often considered a non-blendable grape) with other varieties makes him stand out from nearly every other winemaker in the region (or the world). Only in 2005 did the French government finally come around to Deiss’ way of thinking and permit such wines to be labeled as individual vineyard sites and to carry the designation of Grand Cru, though most of his neighbors still scoff at the idea.
The Deiss estate’s 67 acres contains several Grand Cru designated vineyards planted primarily with Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris, plus smaller amounts of many other varietals including several more members of the Pinot family as well as others. All the vineyards are planted with a vine density of sometimes more than 4050 plants per acre. Perhaps not surprisingly in keeping with this low-vigor, high-stress planting, the vines are pruned severely and yields are restricted to levels that are generally less than half of the average yield in the region.
As described above, most of Deiss wines are field blends (where grapes of different varieties are picked together, fermented together, and aged together), fermented solely with native yeasts slowly in either steel or wooden casks over a period of four to six weeks. Most of his wines are kept from going through a secondary fermentation and age on their lees for six to eight months before a single racking (pouring the wine off the settled sediment) and are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Deiss produces three types of wines — his vineyard designate blends, vineyard designated single varietals like this Riesling, and a few late harvest wines (Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles). This wine comes from the Burg vineyard, back when Deiss was still making single varietal wines from it. These days the Deiss Riesling comes from Beblenheim.
A light, amber-gold color in the glass, this wine has an alluring nose with slight petrol aromas and scents of crushed stones and dried herbs. In the mouth it is remarkably bright with acidity after ten years, and has a compelling, complex set of flavors that slide sexily on the palate. Throughout the evening these flavors included a nutty flavor, the slight mustiness of old parchment, bee pollen, and chamomile. The finish is long and ethereal, adding to the slightly otherworldly quality of this very unique wine that is difficult to describe, but not to enjoy.
We had this wine with a blended soup of turnip and brioche over a small torchon of foie gras, topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon oil. I don’t think I could have dreamed up this pairing in my wildest dreams, but wow, what a combination.
Overall Score: 9.5
How Much?: $60
This wine is difficult to find. Snap it up if you can find it, or tell me and I will!
Domaine Marcel Deiss is imported by Vintus, 48 Wheeler Avenue, Pleasantville, NY 10570. (914) 769-3000