Domaine Marcel Deiss is a mid-size estate (27 hectares) located in Bergheim near Ribeauvillé in Alsace. It is a deeply-rooted family estate as the Deiss ancestors can be traced in the village back in 1744. Under the guidance of Jean-Michel Deiss, who runs the winery since 1981, the vineyards have been gradually turned organic, then farmed along the biodynamic method since 2003. The wines of Marcel Deiss are acclaimed for their terroir differenciation more than their variety characteristics, and Jean-Michel Deiss' passion for this terroir expression led him to reconsider the single variety system which is considered as the rule in Alsace.
I joined first a group a young professionals who were mostly from families in the winery trade. We had a tasting and listened to what Jean Michel Deiss had to say about these important issues like terroir and varieties. After then I toured the facility and could ask more questions. I also met Jean-Michel's son Mathieu, who is gradually taking responsability for the estate, especially at the crucial harvest time. Now, he's the one who sleeps on a mattress in the chai during those pivotal nights... He is also a biker and we chatted about our respective bikes (I rode mine to Alsace), he rides a Buell (I love their sound). Jean-Michel Deiss is also a biker and asked to see mine as I was leaving...
He says that the complantation [this ancient mode of planting different varieties in the same vineyard] was there in the past because of the instinct of the vignerons : these people didn't have instruction, they didn't read or write but they looked for diversity. This diversity brought harmony. Olivier de Serres, he says, who was Henri IV's agriculture minister, used to say that thanks to diversification, every year will bring a harvest. Jean-Michel Deiss adds that monoculture brought us the chemical products, the intrants in French. The diversity helps stand the vintage which is always a source of problems : too hot, too cold, too wet etc... Harmony comes from within, or also from deep into the soil. He pleads for a Cistercian agriculture, for the famous Règle de Bernard of Clairvaux. Until 1000 A.D., he says, wine had mostly a hygiene role, it was drunk with water added, as a safe, non-polluted drink. The Greeks and the Romans considered those who drank wine pure, non watered, as barbarians. There was a sound reason to mix water with wine : at that time, any transported water which didn't have 4° in alcohol gave people the turista. When the Roman armies advanced through the Gauls, they brought with them their intendancy, their secure water-with-wine drink. In 50 years their culture flourished in what is now France. Every region made its wine from then on, it was a secure drink, always mixed with water.
This golden age of local wine everywhere suffered a blow when some sort of first globalization took place : the railways. You didn't need to grow vines in difficult regions anymore, the easy wines of several main regions could flow everywhere and many places stopped making wine.
Speaking of Alsace, a particular event paved the way for the spread of vineyards on its slopes : 1052 was the year of the schism between the oriental church and the papacy. An Alsacian Pope got in sour relations with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Ottomans advanced in the Mediterranean and the supply of sacramental wines from Palestine dried out. So, the Alsacian Pope wrote a letter to Bernard de Clairvaux [who is in the Citeaux Abbey then as I understand] asking him to plant vineyards in the Christian lands to make their own mass wine. That's History. Jean-Michel Deiss now speaks about this ancient complantation mode : 65 000 vines per hectare, at this density, the roots go deep into the ground and by doing so, they go away from the irregularities of the climate, of the vintage. It's like a monacal meditation for the plant, he adds. The vine separates itself from the vintage. All the vines of Europe will follow the model of the Cistercian Abbey of the 12th century, including as far as Porto or Tokaji.
Here, he says, his vineyards are at about 8000 to 12 000 vines/hectare, and next year, they'll plant at 22 000 per hectare.
The "improving grape varieties" (cépages améliorateurs) planted decades ago were catastrophic for the AOC quality level in many regions, especially that the roots of these vines don't root deep. The AOC is supposed to point to the excellence but in every field the excellence is a mere 4% of the whole, and the AOC makes more than 50% of the total planted surface in France, so something is wrong. Then he says that the European legal rules for Appellations can be the solution : these rules say that wine can be made with only grapes and without additives or re-acidification or reverse-osmosis or whatsoever. This would be a simple and efficient rule, but France is unable or unwilling to adpot it and enforce it, he says. Just look at Sauternes he says, the French rules allow chaptalization till + 21°...The AOC system as it is functionning right now is a perfect tool for powerful big wineries and for brands.
Now, there is the AOP, which was set up by several European countries in 1992. This is a protection of the product through its description. Since 2009, it's an active system. France is reluctant to adopt it and pretends that it is complicated, deciding to follow a minima in this direction, that is, to do nothing. As a consequence, they just discovered in Paris that they will not get Europe's protection for their agricultural products and their wines.
Jean-Michel Deiss says that his model for identity are these Jura vignerons who make this strange Vin Jaune, a wine that 90% of the people are at odds to understand, but a wine which is authentic, atypical and beautiful. Asked about his own wines he says that they are honest, made with nothing more than grapes, nothing added, the lees aren't even racked. He wants wines which are aromatic, with a good acidic structure, long in the mouth, and which have complexity. To appreciate a wine, he emphasizes salivation. Salivation, he says, must be mastered and be an exercise.
__ Marcel Deiss Alsace 2008. A red made with most grape varieties from complantation. Flower aromas. Intensity in the mouth. This is the entry wine. There are complanted vineyards in this wine but in general these are young vines which are not yet marked by the terroir. Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris complanted too. Suave nose. Only indigenous yeasts, here too. The result is often wines with a bit of residual sugar. Anyway, he adds, in the past, Alsacian wines weren't 100% dry. It's a recent trend to make wines which are completely dry. This wine is exported for a large share. Speaking of his output, he says that he makes 100 000 bottles a year from a total surface of 27 hectares. This, with 27 cuvées. Before the recent crisis, 70% of the wine was exported, now only 55%. The US bought much less. UK is not a big market for them.
__ Marcel Deiss Burlenberg 2004 Alsace 1er Cru ("encours de hiérarchisation"-the 1er Cru label is in the process of being officially recognized). White (you'll not have the grape varieties on the labels here) Outstanding nose, complexity. Aromas of small red fruits coming up. Yields 30 hectoliters/hectare. Crushed with the feet, punched with the hands. Nice tannins, well integrated. Still early to drink it yet. He says this wines needs to age. Right now, the 1990 and the 2000 are fine. Hard limestone soil. I put my nose back on the glass : superb, ampleness and pleasure. costs 29 €.
__Marcel Deiss Engelberg 2008. The nose is obviously mineral here. Surprising mouth at first, that feels less acidic. Comes from a granitic plot above Saint Hyppolite. 12° only. About 10 grams of residual sugar. The 2nd mouth is well balanced, the red wine before had distorted my feel.
__ Marcel Deiss Engelgarten (the vintage lacks on my notes). From a vineyard growing on a former river bed. Gravels soil like in the Bordeaux region. He says the aromas here go between gasoline and helium. Nose with freshness and acidulous notes. Nice legs on the glass. I find a neat minerality here. Residual sugar : he says that it can be dry or have up to 15 grams. The 2008 has less than 10 grams (that must be a 2008). 30 €.
__ Marcel Deiss Rotenberg 2008 Alsace 1er Cru (en cours de hiérarchisation). 35 gr residual sugar. Rotenberg, he says, is quite regular and makes usually between 35 and 40 gr. Very nice and surprising nose. Vividness. The soil is reddish, he says, marked by iron. Superb wine that you breath more than you smell. Honey, grapefruit, spices, rose, says the printed wine file. That's even more than that... Mouth : the res. sugar, an energic acidity too. A large part of Riesling with also Pinot Gris and Muscat.
__ Marcel Deiss Grasberg 1997. From an enomatic-type machine that keeps open bottles safe. Petrol notes, smoky sides also I find. Very delicate in the mouth.
__ Marcel Deiss Gruenspiel 2004. He says that this wine is very agressive when young because there is Pinot Noir in it (let's remind that this is a white also). Intensity on the nose. Minerality. Liquorice. Nice bitterness in the mouth. Classy and atypical. Very nice. 26 €.
__ Marcel Deiss Gruenspiel 2005. There is Riesling, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer in there. That's typically the type of white wine that could pass as a red, blind. This is tannic, the vines are on marls. Impressive nose, with light dry raisins notes. The grapes were pressed between 8 to 16 hours. The wine glides beautifully in the throat. There, you salivate indeed... 30 €.
__ Marcel Deiss Schoenenbourg 2006 (the Grand Vin at Deiss). Color is gold and green at the same time. Nose : superb, freshness, neat, sharp and mineral. The mouth is quite exceptionnal. Imagine a sucrosity held pefectly between the acidity and what I would call the minerality, really superb. 110 grams res. sugar. 58 €.
__ Marcel Deiss Altenberg de Bergheim 2006. Here are the 13 Alsatian varieties which have survived the massacre. This is Alsace, here. Golden color (quite dark) whith some green. Neat nose, fresh too. In the mouth, power, intensity and refineness. 12,5°. Outstanding wine. 56 €.
Then came 1976, a complicated vintage, the drought, the endless summer, the first modern vintage, sort of, fruits too ripe and so on. Here he felt that the wine was very superficial, apparently perfect but no emotion, nothing. That's when he begins to deconstruct his certainties : the notion of technical maturity, the notion of vigor of the vine...He was taught that to make a good wine, one needs a vineyard with vigor. That's wrong, actually, he says. To make good wine, you don't need a beautiful vineyard, you need a vineyard that struggles and fights for survival. The vineyard must sort of say one morning : "I'll not make it". He adds : the great wine is a doubt, it comes from this edge where the vineyard found itself in jeopardy. After realizing this, he put into question other concepts considered like scientific certainty : the crushing, the pumping, the harvest machine of course because it was beginning to appear at that time. On the whole, he purges his practices until being able to concentrate on his ritual grape tasting in the vineyard without thinking to the alcohol level, the sugar and so on. What counted then was to find again this sense of innocence while tasting these grapes and listen to what the fruit could say.
So, back to the tasting of the grapes : this will decide when to harvest. At harvest, he is very demanding for the pickers' work and asks that no grapes are left on the plant. The plant worked hard and he feels bad that some of its healthy fruits are left behind. The grapes must not be thrown in the bucket either, but carefully laid down. The buckets are poured in a potiche which can hold some 10 buckets, and this potiche is is smoothly taken out of the vineyard with a small caterpillar, put on the trailer and brought to the chai. It is then poured gently into the press, with the grapes in the same intact shape than when they were picked. Then the press stage begins at a slow pressure for a total time going from 18 to 24 hours. He has 5 presses (see pic above) which allows him to make 5 press loads, on a very long mode, without hurry, and without thick lees (bourbes). When high and fast pressure is pushed on the grapes, you get undesired aromas. He says that there's a mystic of the press, he likes to be there and take the time. It's like when you are about to have a child, you must be at the hospital and wait for that moment, you can't be doing something somewhere else... The juice flows gracefully from the press, it's beautiful and intense, and he can't understand how it's possible not be there. He is passing this notion of respect for this important moment to his son Mathieu.
The press juice flows to the cellar into a vat, and as soon as he has this vat roughly half-filled (this is after 4 or 5 hours), he connects a small and very soft pump to bring the juice into a foudre where the fermentation will start. At the end, from 2 presses or say, 30 hectoliters, he will be left with some 3 buckets of thicker matter. Note that he tries never to use the same type of presses for a particular terroir, so he will split the grapes for example between a vertical press and a horizontal pneumatic one : he wants to erase the terchnological signature of the tools he uses, blur the press style, sort of. The three buckets of thicker liquid will be filtered and this will yield two buckets of must which will percolate drop after drop through the filter. That's the typical pied de cuve, it's a concentrate of yeasts and life which has been aerated by being isolated and put onto the filter, and he will pour these two buckets of filtered juice into the foudre, helping start the fermentation. After 6 hours, 12 hours max, it is set off. He says that it's so biblical, so easy to do, and it works so systematically that he doesn't understand how it's not generalized. Instead of that, the norm is alas to press fast, use a deposit-lees filter (he uses a simple sock) and inoculate with lab yeasts. He doesn't add SO2 at this stage.
About the SO2, he doesn't use SO2 in the early stage or during the élevage because his wines are relatively secure : they stay a very long time on their lees, there is a lot of colloid protection on his wines. He adds that making a Grand Vin always lets the door open to an accident, to the wine turning to vinegar at one point or another. There's a risk, but if you want a real wine, it's like a human being : how do you want someone to become a responsible grown-up if you prevent him/her to live, breath, and experience life ? A wine which is being kept in shackles will never be a real wine because it is already finished before having begun to exist in the first place. For his wines, he accepts the risk of letting his wines some freedom of movement for the sake of having them turn great for this very reason. On the whole, he wasn't too much disappointed by his kids... That's what he calls his joker : if a cuvée fails, he takes it as a joker and along his professional life, he got several, but not that many. In 2006 for example, for certain cuvées, he considered that this was his joker's time : he considered that his vineyard and himself couldn't handle this monsoon in 2006 and well, there will not be a Deiss Burg 2006... It's not even downgraded to a lesser cuvée, he brings the faulty wine to the distillery.
Back to his vinification modus operandi : The wines ferment slowly, including through winter and in spring, in a large number of 30/50-hectoliter foudres, and there's an important stage toward the end of july : they begin to rack the wines so that they have wines separated from part of their lees. He reminds me that the wines weren't touched at all during all that time, no must-racking or any other racking. Usually, the bottling takes place after august 15 in normal years. He needs 5 to 6 weeks to do the bottlings. Jean-Michel Deiss adds that racking helps settle the lees : oxygen is the best clarifier for a wine, it is better than any filter, when the wine gets exposed to the air, the lees setlle. He says that the particular shape and concept of the Alsacian foudre helps the lees stay in suspension in the wine, while in a cask, because of the faster oxygenation, the lees will deposit, which brings the necessity of stirring the lees from time to time (because when the lees deposit in the bottom, it leaves the wine above more exposed to risks). In an oval cask, he says, you could virtually leave the wine as such for 20 years, nothing will happen to the wine because the lees stay in suspension and protect the wine while feeding it. In a circular wooden vat (non egg-shaped), the contact surface between the lees and the wine is important and the lees deposit quickly. On an egg-shaped foudre, this surface is small, and this lees/wine contact surface yields reduction. With an important surface at the bottom of the vat, the wine will tend to close itself and give reduction notes. It seems that the people who designed these vats wanted to have an adequate lees/wine contact surface so as to avoid the reduction level in the wine. And this empirical design was progressive depending of the size of the foudre, he says : The bigger the foudre was, the slimmer its shape, with almost sharp extremities. It's like if they took into account the pressure of the wine in the bottom in a big cask (that's why they even reduced more the width of the bottom surface for big volumes). Jean-Michel Deiss says that because of this particularity of the foudres in Alsace, the region produced in the past the longest-keep wines in Europe. If you can visit the Cave des Hospices de Strasbourg (the cellar of the Strasbourg Hospital), you can see severa foudres with wines dating respectively from 1742, 1519 and 1525 [if you read French, you will learn in the Wikipedia page that the 500-year old wine was analized by a wine lab in 1994 with results being very positive, for the robe as well as for the nose, the complexity and aromas... The hospital in these ancient times was paid sometimes with vineyards or agricultual land and so they kept the product of these vineyards in the cellar]. Jean-Michel Deiss says that this old foudre is very impressing and particular : the front side is egg shaped, and the back side is egg-shaped too, but upside down. It's been tasted by many great men over the centuries, it is topped up every year and it doesn't change much.
Now, Jean-Michel Deiss says that the last stage, the filtration, is an utterly-difficult one, because it is another stress on the wine, because there is usually pressure involved, which may harm the wine. Asked if that's the reason his bottlibgs last so much time, he says yes. He filters at a 2-hectoliters/hour pace, which is very slow. He often needs one day and a half to filter a vat which then will be bottled in 6 hours. This filtration technique is estate-designed so as to be in line with this slow flux that he considers so important for the wine. They never go over 750/800 grams of pressure (counter-pressure included, which takes into account the pressure coming from the weight of the wine in the vat). When you submit the wine to higher pressures, you take the risk to split the different parts of the wine apart : the acidity, the aromas, the sugar, the bitternes, but you shouldn't be able to feel separately these things. A great wine, he says, is a wine that you can't easily describe, it's something complex, it's a living thing
Jean-Michel Deiss told me interesting things about the Pinot Noir : this variety mutates much faster than other varieties, it has about 350 different types, and these different types can mutate in 3 years, when Riesling may need 2000 years.. Plus, this variety is so complex that genecicists have renounced to come round it, and for a good reason, because Pinot has two DNA, one for the skin and one for the pulp of the grape, each helping the variety to mutate in a direction or another. You can plant a clone 777, the most colored Pinot and find yourself 10 years later with 5% white grapes in the vineyard, or have a vine with half red grapes and half whites, even grapes that are half and half symmetrically....
Link to our 2004 Deiss visit (with resized pics).
Jean-Michel Deiss has two older sons, among whom Mathieu, and a very young daughter who at 3 years and a half speaks already beautifully.