Jean-Michel Deiss likes to talk spit.
That his family, winegrowers since 1744, are established as the Alsatian version of winemaking royalty probably helps him to get away with it.
“Wine today is an industrial project,” he told me (through interpretation) during a media tour visit to Domaine Marcel Deiss‘ Bergheim winery. “But great wine is not a question of taste. Great wine is like a [good] book; as soon as you finish reading, you look for someone you love [to share it with].”
Or, in my case, you put it on the Internet to share it with total strangers. But the point is a solid one. Anyway, we were talking about spit.
“Salivation is how you measure a wine’s energy,” Deiss continued. “You don’t need to be an expert for that. And there’s no salivation without terroir. It’s like geography in the mouth. Where you get salivation, you get terroir.”
“It’s not an efficient concept,” he added, at which point he showed multiple rips in his pants, presumably the result of his efforts in the vineyard and the cellar.
Domaine Marcel Deiss is still a family-run outfit, utilizing about 20 people and overseeing about 30 hectares of vineyards, many of which are old vine field blends (or, as they like to call them “companion planted” vines) of Alsace’s key grape varieties, with roots deep enough that the different varieties essentially ripen around the same time. Deiss’ focus is now solely on vineyard site (rather than on variety), as well as on biodiversity, minimal sulfur additions, and no filtration. Lest you think that this ostensibly hands-off approach should make life at Deiss easier, Jean-Michel’s son Mathieu echoed his father’s sentiment regarding the amount of extra work required by their approach; “with ‘natural’ wine, you have to be more precise in the cellar, not less.” At which point, he offered up the next generation’s version of dad’s ripped pants: according to his cell phone, he had logged the equivalent of 100 kilometers of walking in the last four days alone…
The result of all of this grit and focus are wines of high quality and intense, glistening purity of expression. And, yes, salivasjɔ̃. A spit shine on fine wine, if you will.
2015 Domaine Marcel Deiss Blanc (Alsace, $20)
This is a great place to start with the overall Deiss concept, not just in terms of affordability, but also in terms of philosophy. This white is a blend of thirteen different varieties, including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Beurot, Pinot Noir, white and pink Muscat, Sylvaner, Chasselas, and (naturally) Riesling. The plantings are from pre-phylloxera massal clones, and the result is much more delicious harmony than it is kitchen-sink-dilution. Tropical, pithy, mineral, astringent, and delicious.
2012 Domaine Marcel Deiss ‘Rotenberg’ Bergheim (Alsace, $45)
This site sits on iron-rch Jurassic limestone, making it one of the oldest soils with which Diess works. Essentially, this is a blend of Reisling and “the whole Pinot family” as they put it. Lemon, earth, citrus peel, flowers, honey, lemon drop candy, limes… this is at once fleshy/fruity and astringent. For Alsace, it’s downright seductive.
2014 Domaine Marcel Deiss Engelgarten (Alsace, $38)
The soil here is gravelly, at a spot that is a “cannon shot” away from the medeival fortress in Bergheim, with naturally dry soils that stress the vines (in partciular the Riesling) and help to limit yields. Orange peel, pear, white flowers, and yes, a hell of a lot of mineral and stone notes are present. It’s intensely linear and vibrant, with the Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Beurot, Muscat, and Pinot Noir blending together damn-near seamlessly.
2012 Domaine Marcel Deiss ‘Schoffweg’ Bergheim (Alsace, $50)
A softer limestone soil dominates at this site, which is also rocky and windy (helping to minimize rot). It’s a fleshy wine by Alsatian standards, with hints of vanilla and slate, and a bit of mild tannic bite. Floral and flinty, spicy, and round without being overtly fruity, yet somehow staying overtly flirty.
2011 Domaine Marcel Deiss Grasberg (Alsace, $46)
Deiss’ Grasberg vines are on a high (280 meters elevation), south-facing, cooler-area slope, planted on compacted limestone. Personally, I would consider trying to live on that hill in a tent if all Grasberg wines aged like this. This is tropical, nutty, toasty, earthy, vibrant, minty, citric, heady, perfumed, and, above all, fresh. Bonus points for the dried citrus peel and lemon jam action, courtesy of some residual sugar and botrytis on the Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer.
2011 Domaine Marcel Deiss Gruenspiel Bergheim (Alsace, $NA)
You’ll have a difficult time finding a bottle of this field blend of Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer; which is a shame, as this wine is a singular experience. The site’s name basically means “draughtboard,” and is meant to describe the varied topsoil there, including deposits of granite, gneiss, and sandstone over marl. As Mathieu Deiss put it, “we assume some people won’t like it; once you have personality, you assume not everybody will like you.” I can assure you that this wine is not in any way attempting to be friendly. It’s broad, expressive, ripe but also lively, bitter, young, and at turns even brooding. Stone fruits mix with smoke, spices, and flowers into something both funky and delicious.
2013 Domaine Marcel Deiss Mambourg (Alsace Grand Cru, $90)
Oligocene limestone, magnesium, and marl mark this site, which has had a reputation for making good juice since at least the Middle Ages. Structured, pure, and pithy, this Pinot-family blend offers deep citrus flavors, a sense of power, and a presentation in the mouth that is almost Burgundian. In a word, it’s fascinating (spoken with Mr. Spock inflection).
2012 Domaine Marcel Deiss Altenberg de Bergheim (Alsace Grand Cru, $87)
This site benefits from a mix of soils, including ferrous limestone and clay-calcareous deposits. Tropical fruit and citrus flavors combine with marmalade, honey, and a broad mouthfeel that has sweet candy and resin notes, with aromas of white flowers and vanilla added to the mix. All of the permitted Alsatian varieties show up in this field blend, and somehow it all adds up to a sweet sum much greater than we should expect from its constituent parts.