The wines of Domaine Marcel Deiss - so full of terroir that vintage does not matter.
There were no witches on broomsticks at last month's Return to Terroir tasting in New York. Perhaps I just didn't see them. That could have been possible, of course, I can't rule it out. It was a busy tasting, after all. Many people sipping, chatting, taking notes, asking questions. Biodynamics, the Black Magick of viticulture, is alive. And the winemakers look just like normal people.
The domaine Marcel Deiss in the small town of Bergheim in Alsace has been run by the Deiss family since 1744. They have been one of the early adopters of biodynamic practices in the region. When making wine current winemaker Jean-Michel Deiss and his son Mathieu put the place above everything else. The domaine owns 26 hectares (65 acres) of hillside vineyards which consist primarily of clay, marl and limestone. Father and son unremittingly stress the importance of the vineyard when they speak about their wines. The vineyard, they say, is the most important factor in winemaking—even more important than the grape variety itself. While tasting one of their wines I asked Mathieu which vintage he was pouring. He wasn't sure himself and, while checking the label, added: "The vintage isn't important, really."
I cleared my throat and asked him politely to repeat what he had just said. The last thing I expected to hear from a winemaker is that the vintage of a wine is not important. Shocking! This is worse than black magic, this is heresy.
Mathieu explained that it is the terroir that gives the wine its true character. It does so every year, no matter if it is a cold or a hot growing season. He admitted that the wines are different depending on the vintage, but the character of each wine remains the same. While pouring the 2008 Engelgarten (I mention the vintage anyway) he said that "the specific 'flintiness', even the balance of the wine is the same year after year in the Engelgarten vineyard, which is particularly gravelly."
Indeed, I did find the balance in this wine striking. It was slightly off-dry and perfectly balanced by the wine's acidity. Both aroma and flavor were pristine and clear, like a breeze coming from the sea with hints of herbs and grapefruit. The Engelgarten is one of the wines that Deiss refers to as a terroir wine The estate divides their wines into three categories: fruity wines (Vins de Fruits), which are labeled by variety and come from a single commune or village; terroir wines (Vins de Terroir), single vineyard wines, made from a blend of varieties that come from the same vineyard; and finally the "wines that need time" (Vins de Temps), the late harvest wines, i.e. Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles.
I was particularly impressed by the elegance of the Deiss wines poured at the Return to Terroir tasting. The 2007 Burg, a blend of all of the traditional grape varieties grown on this site that consists of Keuper marl and calcerous soils had a soothing aroma of honey and spices. It was off-dry on the palate and quite full-bodied with its medium(+) alcohol. Very concentrated fruit aromas with a hint of bitterness lasted over a long and very satisfying finish. The limestone soil of the Burlenberg vineyard gave the 2006 Burlenberg, which is a blend of predominantly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, a distinctly old world character, by which I mean its pronounced barnyard aroma and intriguing smell of raspberries. A red wine from Alsace with unusually firm tannins. Very elegant, with a solid structure for its pronounced berry flavors and spicy finish.
These wines were beautiful. They were balanced and graceful. Drinking elegant and expressive wines like these, how can one remain skeptical about biodynamics?