Alsace, the oft-contested and much-coveted skinny strip of land between northeastern France and its neighbor Germany, is an odd and unique place. Like several other such zones around the world, it has been a part of so many different countries and empires that it enjoys a sort of twilight zone atmosphere, where place names reflect one language, spoken words another, and family histories often both or none of the above.
Alsace is also a unique landscape sculpted by both rivers and volcanic events, but bearing the unmistakable and essential traces of a more ancient geological past as the bottom of a wide ocean. It is no wonder that the wines of this region are like nowhere else on earth, and it is no wonder that the winemakers of this region are some of the most unique characters in the world of wine.
Jean-Michel Deiss is one of those characters. Deiss, along with his partner Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, run Domaine Marcel Deiss, started by Jean-Michel’s father in 1947. The domaine’s namesake, Marcel Deiss, was the direct descendant of a family of winegrowers who settled in the Alsace 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).
Deiss is quite possibly at once both the “essential” Alsatian winemaker — for his tireless advocacy of the region’s potential and the incredible quality of his wines — and yet also the black sheep of the region who never quite does things the way anyone else does or thinks they should be done. He’s just sort of troublemaker I enjoy and is 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). It is the only region in France where you will see a Grand Cru designation alongside the name of a grape variety.
Deiss, however, believes firmly in that vineyard expression trumps varietal expression, and has raised furors for years over his decision to label single varietal wines only with the names of his vineyards. Deiss also has a tendency to produce field blends of multiple varieties that are sold with only the name of the vineyard on the label.
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 many of his neighbors still scoff at the idea.
Deiss is also a fervent devotee of biodynamic viticulture, a fact which, these days, is one of the few things he has in common with many of his neighbors. The domaine has been fully biodynamic since 1997, and was farmed organically for the 20 years prior to that. While biodynamic viticulture is quite a leap for some winemakers, especially when it comes to its more spiritual practices, Deiss has long had a spiritual sense of his winemaking and winegrowing. He has been known to claim that one of the main reasons he does field blends of grapes like Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir is that in his vineyards they all ripen simultaneously (which, if true, would be quite unusual).
Presumably, if God makes them ripen all at once, then why not make wine with them?
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. 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.
Deiss’ winemaking fits into the general zone of “natural” and biodynamic winemaking practices. He uses sulfur, but apart from that, he’s in the zone of primitive, non-interventionalist winemaking. Native yeasts, extended time on the skins for some wines. fermentations as long as they take, a long time in big oak casks often on the lees, and as little else done to the wines as possible with no fining or filtration before bottling.
Deiss’ wines defy description in many ways. Their flavors transcend categories and grape varieties, and end up being astonishingly unique expressions of a place and vintage. They are as idiosyncratic as they are delicious, and remain some of my favorite wines in the world. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
I tasted these wines at my visit to ProWein in Dusseldorf this past March.
2010 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Alsace” White Blend, Bergheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and grapefruit. In the mouth juicy grapefruit flavors mix with wet stone and a lightly tannic quality that adds a surprising and pleasing note of complexity to the wine. Nice crisp finish of citrus notes. Dry. A blend of all the official white grapes of Alsace. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2009 Domaine Marcel Deiss Muscat d’Alsace, Bergheim
Light gold in color, this wine smells of melon and roses. In the mouth the wine has a bubble gum flavor, with notes of melon and star fruit. Good acidity, and completely dry. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $21. click to buy.
2009 Domaine Marcel Deiss Riesling Bergheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a peachy aroma with a nice mineral backup. In the mouth flavors of orange peel, peach and wet stones have a crisp character thanks to nice acidity. Dry. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $21. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss Pinot Gris, Blebenheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a lightly yeasty nose of wet leaves and sweet ripe pears. In the mouth that yeasty character continues, with flavors of roasted pears, wet leaves and wet chalkboard. The mineral notes and pear aromas linger through a long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $14. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss Gewurztraminer, Bergheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of spiced orange peel and wet leaves. In the mouth flavors of peach, orange peel, and a light funkiness mix with a flavor that might be described as sweet wet leaves. Great acidity and fantastic length. Lightly sweet. Score: around 9. Cost: 25. click to buy.
2010 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Alsace” Red Blend, Bergheim
Cloudy ruby in the glass, this wine smells of smoky and meaty sour cherry fruit. In the mouth flavors of sour cherry, raspberry and cedary have a sawdusty character wrapped as they are in velvety tannins. Red apple skin flavors linger on the finish. The wine doesn’t have quite the poise that it could. Primarily Pinot Noir, but also contains other grapes. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2006 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Burlenberg” Pinot Noir, Bergheim
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a meaty cherry aroma with lovely floral notes flitting on top of it. In the mouth, aggressive but powdery tannins wrap around flavors of cherry, raspberry, and red apple skin. Very pretty dark wet earth notes rumble around underneath, and the wine has a long finish. Lovely texture and good acidity, but the wine needs a few years in the bottle to really show what it is capable of. Check back in 3-5. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2009 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Engelgarten” White Blend, Bergheim
Pale nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and straw. In the mouth flavors of cucumber, wet stones and unripe pear all take on a crisp beautiful character and are gorgeously balanced in the mouth. Mineral and pear notes linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. Dry. A blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Rotenberg” White Blend, Wintzenheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle, wet stone, and spiced oranges. In the mouth flavors of orange peel, wet leaves, and wet stones take on a cool crystalline quality, while a touch of sweetness elevates the wine to something more unusual. Gorgeously textured, silky on the tongue, it’s hard to spit this wine out. Off-dry. Excellent acidity. A blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Schoffweg” White Blend, Wintzenheim
Light gold in color, this wine smells of wet leaves, paraffin, and a hint of dried orange peel. In the mouth the wine offers tart paraffin, and kumquat flesh and zest flavors mixed with cold cream, while a deep stony minerality lingers underneath. Gorgeously satiny in the mouth this wine feels amazing slipping around your tongue. Excellent acidity. Dry. A blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Grasberg” White Blend, Bergheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and wet stones. In the mouth flavors of wet stone, wet dirt, wet leaves and the light sweetness of honeysuckle and lemon all blend in a perfectly balanced whole. Excellent, delicate acidity. A blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
2007 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Gruenspiel” Premier Cru White Blend, Bergheim
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of exotic oils and tropical fruits. In the mouth flavors of exotic citrus peel, spices, wet stones, and cantaloupe have a waxy character and a light sweetness. A deep resonant minerality skulks around the edges of this wine, like the scent of the bottom of a deep well. Phenomenal balance, excellent acidity. A remarkable field blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Off-dry. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Burg” White Blend Bergheim
Pale amber in the glass, this wine smells of orange peel and wet earth. In the mouth flavors of wet stone, orange peel, and exotic spices have a waxy character. Flavors of wet leaves and candle wax enter the long finish. Beautifully balanced, with gorgeous acidity and just a touch of sweetness. An exotic and stunning blend of Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Off dry. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
2009 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Langenberg” Riesling, St. Hippolyte
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of incense, angostura bitters, and exotic citrus. In the mouth tart flavors of exotic citrus mix with wet stone / wet slate character and linger in a crisp dry finish. Beautifully balanced and quite unique. An blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Beurot, Muscat, and Pinot Noir. Dry.Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2009 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Mambourg” Grand Gru White Blend, Sigolsheim
Light blonde in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream spices and wet stones. In the mouth the wine offers a stunning kaleidoscope of flavors that shimmer through wet leaves, start fruit, and exotic melons, all with a deep wet stone minerality. Incredibly sexy on the tongue, this wine is a satin river winding through the tastebuds. Perfectly balanced, with incredibly delicate acidity. Exotic, mysterious, and awesome. Dry. A blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $85. click to buy.
2007 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Altenberg” Grand Cru White Blend, Bergheim
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet mandarine oranges and wet stones. In the mouth, stunning juicy flavors of orange blossom, lemon, and exotic citrus have a crystalline quality to them as gorgeous acidity and texture bring them to life in a shimmering veil of flavor across the tastebuds. Stunning balance and length. Moderately sweet. A secret field blend of at least 13 different varieties, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Auxerrois, Sylvaner, Savagnin, Gewürztraminer, Chasselas, Pinot Noir and probably a touch of Chardonnay. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $95. click to buy.
2008 Domaine Marcel Deiss “Schoenenbourg” Grand Cru White Blend, Riquewihr
Light gold in the glass this wine smells of exotic citrus and wet leaves. In the mouth the phenomenal acidity makes flavors of mandarine, tangerine, and other exotic citrus fruits all but explode on the tongue. Flavors of wet leaves and wet rocks sail on with citrus notes in an incredible finish. Fantastically harmonious and balanced, this wine is a tour de force. Dry. A blend of significant amounts of Riesling, plus Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and little bits of other things. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $85. click to buy.