Jean-Michel Deiss has been called a lot of things: Maverick, renegade, terroirist, genius, crackpot. But one thing that all of his title-throwing friends can agree on is that the wines that he produces at Domaine Marcel Deiss are special, unique and altogether delicious.
Along with his wife Clarisse and their talented winemaker Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, Jean-Michel has transformed the Domaine from an Alsatian also-ran to one of the most respected wineries on earth. In an area already known for producing great wines that speak of the soil Jean-Michel has through innovation, bravery and, let’s face it- a little craziness, taken his wines to new heights.
The Domaine was created in 1947 by Jean-Michel’s father Marcel Deiss after he returned from WWII, though the history of the family as grape growers dates back to 1744. Today they produce a scant 10,000 cases from traditional Alsatian varieties, and these can be divided into three separate styles:
Les Vins de Fruits (Fruit Wines) - Here the wines are comprised of only one varietal like many other wines in Alsace. They are made from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Muscat grapes. The name of the vineyard is also listed on the label.
Les Vins de Temps (Time Wines) - These are wines where the emphasis is placed upon the vintage and include wines of both Vendages Tardives and Selection de Grains Nobles character.
Les Vins de Terroir (Terroir Wines) - These are wines that are sold by the name of vineyard only to express the style and personality of that particular soil type and micro-climate.
For soil is the ultimate playground for Jean-Michel. His domaine covers 67 acres of some of the greatest and most famous sites for producing white wine on earth. Englegarten, Rotenberg, Grasberg, Altenberg. The list of premier vineyards and Grand Crus goes on and on. Deiss counts some 220 different sites among his 27ha of vines. The Englegarten was once a riverbed and now has a thin layer of gravel on the surface. The Rotenberg is heavy with iron and limestone. The Grasberg vineyard is rocky and porous with lots of fossilized crustaceans. And the Grand Cru of Altenberg is the most diverse of them all, with four separate faults located within the vineyard creating a dizzying diversity of soils within this one site alone.
Alsace has always been known as an area of diverse and unique soil types, a fact that requires much balance between grape variety and soil type. Unlike elsewhere in France and even most parts of Europe, traditionally the wines of Alsace have consisted of a single grape variety. Over the years certain grape varieties have become synonymous with certain vineyard sites. This expression of the grape and the specific soil that it hails from has become the backbone for great Alsatian wine.
But not for Jean-Michel. The name Deiss (pronounced like nice) lingers on the tips of tongues turned towards Alsace, and not always in the positive. Many of his contemporaries and peers think he has gone over the line. Jean-Michel believes that it is the soil that should be praised and not a specific grape variety within it. So much so that Jean-Michel does the unthinkable for Alsace: He blends several different grape varieties together to create a wine that is from each individual vineyard, not an individual grape. While blends of grapes were once common (called Edelzweicker) blending grapes from within a single vineyard, particularly a Grand Cru site, was considered blasphemy. To top it off, Deiss often uses the noble Riesling in his blends. Well, this was considered by many to be just plain stupid.
So stupid in fact that until 2005 it was illegal. Deiss operated outside of the law by not labeling his Grand Cru wines with the grape varietal on the label. Many in Alsace believe that blending is used to fix faults within the wine and not to add character or complexity. The word polluting is even thrown around. But to understand his wines one must understand the man himself. One must understand that to Jean-Michel it is the soil that is of the utmost importance, and that he is not afraid of taking risks when it comes to producing the best wine that he can.
Though Deiss employs some of the same methods other winemakers use, few are as dedicated to the vine and the soil as he is. Many wineries employ organic farming methods such as Deiss does. But how many have been strictly organic for the last 30 years? Or have been strictly biodynamic for the last 10? Or when planting new vines have been known to dynamite the rock bed so that his young vines have a chance to dig their roots way down deep in search of minerals and nutrients? Yes, that’s right. Dynamite.
Another method employed is a high vine density within the vineyards to force the vine to compete with others in a race to produce the best fruit they can. Yields are kept ridiculously low. The average amount of wine yielded from a single vine in Alsace runs about four bottles, whereas Deiss’ Grand Cru vines yield less than one bottle per vine. The grapes are harvested by hand, which brings us to one of Jean-Michel’s more controversial philosophies: Deiss not only blends different varieties of grapes together from a single vineyard, he also harvests all of the grapes within that vineyard at the same time. Deiss proclaims that they all ripen at the same time due to his unique soil characteristics, a fact that many claim to be impossible. The grapes are then fermented together as well, another seldom, if ever, used tactic.
Deiss believes that using just one grape is like trying to write poetry with just one syllable. He believes that each grape in the field blend brings a different aspect of the terroir, different pieces to the puzzle. Each one a different color on the master’s canvas, though in many cases it is hard to tell who the master is- the vineyard or Marie-Hélène. Deiss often refers to Complantation, or the art of planting different grapes in a specific soil type, a practice that goes against 500 years of trial and error in Alsatian vineyards in an effort to find the best specific soil type for a specific grape.
In the winery the grapes are given the utmost care. Deiss employs several pressing machines so that the grapes undergo the most gentle of pressings before reaching the barrels and tanks. Some wines are designed for immediate consumption and are fermented in stainless steel to preserve the fresh fruit flavors, while others due to low levels of nitrogen found within the grape go through incredibly long and slow fermentations in large foudres. Only indigenous yeasts found on the grapes themselves are used in the fermentation process. Deiss also employs extended sur lie aging and frequent batonnage to increase the weight and character of his wines which are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
And what of the wines themselves? They offer a unique blend of richness and complexity, all the while staying true to the spirit and nature of great Alsatian wine. Deiss’ wines speak of Alsace, and though in some it may be hard to determine which grape is being employed with which wine, the fresh and complex fruit, body, weight and intense minerality all speak of the vineyard. Though he may march to the beat of a different drummer, Deiss creates wines that are at once traditional and visionary. Though they may challenge the notion of where a great Alsatian wine begins and ends, they are indeed magical and certainly Alsatian no matter what anyone may say about them. In the long run, isn’t that the most important thing? To Jean-Michel it is at the least.