Mention Alsace to a retailer and you are just as likely to receive a look of consternation as you are one of excitement. Thorny Alsace may be one of the hardest categories of wine to sell consumers. The common complaint is the difficulty determining both style and sweetness merely by looking at the label. Even particular producers make both dry and sweet wines and do not label them as such. Consumers, it is said, simply do not understand what they are getting and balk at the price of entry for something both confusing and without obvious pedigree.
Pedigree, of course, is a relative statement in the wine world where marketing matters more than actual knowledge. It is a shame that Alsatian wines are both not being picked up by consumers in North America very often and, to be frank, are not being sold properly by the front line retail employee.
The conundrum of sweetness confounds and divides the wine growers in Alsace themselves. As any business owner would be, many growers are aware of the difficulty that their importers profess consumers encounter not knowing ‘sweetness’. Some even make scales of sweetness on their wines to combat the issue. A small number, however, reject this solution as overly simple. My host at Deiss explained that the Domaine’s philosophy has always been one of complexification rather than simplification. Terroir is a difficult concept and does not fall easily into simple categorization.
This made me wonder. Why is it that we consumers (and even many in the industry) are so ready to accept the vast differences in style, tannin, flavour, approachability and food pairing potential of Burgundy, but, in a region with the second most complex soil makeup in all of France we shun the ‘problem of sweetness’ as an oversight or mistake – a misdirection. It is, I learned on my trip, in fact the exact opposite of misdirection. “Sweetness” is relative in Alsace because the terroir is so complex. What may be a perfectly reasonable scale of sweetness for the wines of Gassman (up in the hills around Bergheim) would be completely inappropriate for the wines of Domaine Burn (whose unique Clos St. Imer vineyard ripens 1 month later than everywhere else and produces stunningly aromatic Muscat).
The “sweetness problem” of Alsace is, rather, the problem of North American Consumers who have been taught to expect dryness in their wines as a matter of course and to treat residual sugar as dessert. Of course, as anyone who has paired sweet wine with savory food knows, such consumers are missing out on some of the greatest food pairings available. And even disregarding food, part of the beauty of wine is its differentiation and ability to constantly surprise. That sweetness is difficult to discern in Alsace? That is just a matter of its terroir, and the uniqueness of the wines. To truly understand them, just as in Burgundy, you have to learn a lot about the vineyards, the climate, the soils, the siting and the producer. Alsace is confounding because it is complex.
The Prescient Pariah
There are perhaps no more complex wines in Alsace than those of Marcel Deiss. Jean-Michel Deiss is both a pariah and a visionary in Alsace. Deiss turned his grandfather’s domaine from a producer of bulk wines into one of super-premium terroir focused cuvees not simply by reducing yields and reforming wine making, but more importantly, by challenging the very AOC laws that allowed Alsace to reemerge from the unknown.
When the Grand Cru system was set up in Alsace in 1975, the regulator associated particular Grand Cru vineyards with particular grapes. You could only make a Grand Cru from Altenbourg de Bergheim, for example, with Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris, but not with Pinot Blanc or Muscat. Further, there was no option to blend the grapes. Deiss challenged this traditional take on terroir after having spent much time learning the history of coplanting in Alsace. Many of the Grand Crus were, in fact, traditionally planted with a wide variety of grapes side by side. To separate these grapes into separate wines, argued Deiss, was to eviscerate the terroir of the place.
Without detailing his struggle with the regulating body, it is important to note the outcome: Deiss succeeded in receiving a special dispensation for his portions of several Grand Cru vineyards that allows him to coplant and blend many grapes into a single Grand Cru wine. Thus are Deiss’ wines labelled by vineyard rather than grape, challenging the traditional labelling practices in Alsace.
A man of drive and passion, Deiss, of course, is not satisfied with his current achievements and is currently printing “1er cru” on all of his wines made from special vineyards sitting on the slopes of the Vosges mountains but that are not Grand Cru vineyards. Currently there is no AOC system to distinguish these vineyards from the high yielding and uninteresting ones on the plains, and Deiss has decided after many attempts to discuss the issue with the regulator, to simply start printing “1er cru” on his label and wait for the legal challenge. Such is Deiss.
Of Vineyards and Coplantation
This same panache translates into the wines themselves, of which there are many. Each wine has a particularly unique sense of place and is considerably different from anything else being made in Alsace.
Deiss owns 27 hectares spread over 200+ parcels, which essentially means there are a lot of small pieces of land. Many of these pieces have their own unique terroir, and Deiss is only beginning to get at the depth and complexity of what he has discovered with his coplantation method.
The coplanting method is extremely complex to master, however, as the grapes do not all mature at the same rate. Pinot Gris ripens before Gewurztraminer, for example. This creates unique challenges in vineyard management, sometimes requiring greater density of planting and intensity canopy management. Often the grapes must be left to hang for a considerable time (particularly considering Alsace’s marginal climate). Under these methods, it takes 5-7 years before a vineyard is ready to produce wine and Deiss refuses to ever do a green harvest, calling it the perfect example of what you should not do.
Wine: The Idiosyncrasies of Place
The wines show astral complexity, and a mystery uncommon not only in Alsace, but throughout the wine world. The vineyard designated wines are exceptionally special wines that demonstrate Alsace’s immensity of differentiation and also how much more there is to reveal in this beautiful lush land dotted with half-timbered villages. I note that Deiss’ range of varietally labeled wines are produced for export and do not represent what he is all about. All of the wines are exceptionally balanced, poised and expressive, so I won’t repeat that for each tasting note.
Langenberg 2008: The vineyard is planted with Pinot Noir. As all pinots are genetically the same, Deiss argued that the Pinot Noir was as logically part of this wine as Pinot Gris. The regulator eventually bought his story and made a special derogation to include Pinot Noir in this vineyard blend. A hugely expressive nose that is honeyed and even slightly oxidative. Aged in larger oak barrels and utterly unique. 30g/l of residual sugar. Very Good+ to Excellent. 23 Euros.
Engelgarten 2008: labelled 1er cru as a vineyard situated on the slope. It’s hard to describe “terroir” in words. So let’s just say Very Good+ to Excellent. 20g/l of residual sugar. 24 Euros.
Schoffweg 2007: Grown on white limestone found in northern Bergheim, this wine also sees barrique aging as opposed to the traditional foudres. As with all of these wines, the aromatics are knock out expressive. This wine is more savory and mineral driven than the previous two, though, and has greater density and power. 11g/l of residual sugar. Excellent. 32 Euros.
Rotenberg 2007: A lusher juicy wine that is more fruit driven than mineral intensive, though that element is here. 30g/l of residual sugar. Very Good+ 29 Euros.
Gwenspiel 2004: This vineyard is unique insofar as the blend sees far more Gewurztraminer than the others – traditionally comprising 33% of the blend. Floral but also mossy and smelling of some subterranean society. Wicked wine and you’d never guess Gewurztraminer – a testament to coplanting. 20g/l of residual sugar. Very Good+. 26 Euros.
Gwenspiel 2005: In 2005 the weather was such that the vineyard saw much more rot. Because Gewurztraminer has a greater tendency than other grapes to get noble rot as opposed to grey rot, this year’s blend saw 50% Gewurztraminer since so much of the other grapes had to be discarded. The Goo character thus comes out much greater here, though I’d still call it delicious. 35g/l of residual sugar. 30 euros. Very Good+
Burg 2007: At this point I was already amazed at how many different vineyard bottlings Deiss made and how good each was and how different from the others. Onto the Burg, a vineyard lying on limestone and marl. The limestone here is a unique type of quartz and it makes the soils tougher to penetrate. This makes the wine richer, more tannic and a bit closed in its youth. I was informed that the wine becomes far more interesting after 10 years in the bottle. Excellent.
Huebuhl 2007: A spicy nose suggesting late harvest, which this is. Regulations don’t allow the wine to be sold as such, however, so consumers will simply have to be in the know. Quite astonishingly delicious in its flowers and honey. A stand up and notice wine. Excellent. 29 Euros.
Alternberg de Bergheim 2007 Grand Cru: The big boys. We are talking another level here – the difference between village level Burgundy and a top Grand Cru in Vosne. Ratchet up the aromatic expressivity and complexity, add quince, nuts, incredible, almost shocking length, and a striking minerality, and you realize words are useless. On limestone and marl. Excellent+ (and one of the greatest white wines I’ve had). 56 Euros.
Schoenenbourg 2007 Grand Cru: Make that another of the greatest white wines I’ve had. This is actually entirely Riesling. Who cares what it tastes like – it’s amazing! And this baby can age 15-20 years easily. Excellent++. 58 Euros.
Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer 2004: Thank god I was spitting. This and the remaining two wines are all good, but are not the raison d’etre of Deiss. So I’ll mostly just give ratings. Excellent.
Selection de Grains Nobile Gewurztraminer 2003: Excellent.
Quintessence Gewurztraminer 2005: It is useful to explain the meaning of “Quintessence”. Whereas Vendanges Tardives are late harvest wines made using the whole cluster of grapes and Selection wines are made only with the grapes affected by noble rot, Quintessence wines are a whole new level of crazyness. The grapes for this wine are individually hand picked off of the vine. Pickers look for perfection. The quality of fruit is so pure it’s almost painful. The wine is also incredibly rich, along the lines of Sauternes. Deiss sells this at cost (most everyone else charges double). Excellent+. 75 Euros.
Out of all the wines I tasted in France, I have no issue calling Deiss not only the greatest Domain in Alsace, but one of the best in France. That is all.