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Winemakers

Marcel Deiss: Great Alsace Wines

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So, I don't know where I've been, exactly, but there are something like 2,700,240,000 of those new 2006 nickels in circulation, the ones with Th. Jefferson facing forward and staring at you with spooky space-alien eyes , and I hadn't seen one until today. I swear, it seems like every time I turn around our goverment has done something else to freak me out.

I calmed down by contemplating my meeting the other day with Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss. Jean-Michel falls into the wise old elf school of French winemaking  (as opposed to the taciturn philosopher school or the passionate wild-haired youth school). He's cheerful and twinkly, while at the same time inclined to saying things like, "The concept of terroir is the concept of profundity."

To which I say, certainmente! (He also said, "What's superficial is just Hollywood. The trailer—sex and suicide—not the substance of the film." So, terroir is the essence, not the flash, oui? And now that I have exhausted all the non-profane French I know, we'll call it quits with the pseudo-clever exclamations.) Deiss had a number of intriguing things to say, in fact. He believes that terroir is a concept that was invented as cultivation of vines spread to northern Europe; in Mediterranean, sunny climates, he says, grapes grow easily and the personality of the wine is the personality of the grape. In the north, on the other hand, the personality of the grape is muted and the personality of the place is able to find expression. He also feels that root depth is absolutely critical if a wine is going to express terroir at all, and says that the vine roots in his Marbourg vineyard—which produces a wine that practically spits terroir in your face, like a vinous cobra—go down more than sixty meters. "Every plant has the fantasy that it will grow to the sun," I quoted him as saying the other day; the context for this is his additional statement that if you foil that urge, the plant instead propels its roots deep into the earth.

Believe Jean-Michel if you like (this northern/southern divide intrigues me, I have to say), but whatever you believe, the man is making terrific wines. The 2005 Marcel Deiss Pinot Blanc Bergheim suggests ripe peaches and apricots, with a dense, earthy texture and crisp, almost tannic note on the end.

Stepping up to two of his premier cru wines, you've got a test-case for non-believers in terroir. The 2004 Marcel Deiss Engelgarden Premier Cru has a smoky, savory aroma with a hint of diesel, and dense, complex, powerfully mineral flavors—there's appley fruit, but the primary sensation is of stones and earth, and tremendous length. On the other hand, there's the 2004 Marcel Deiss Grasberg Premier Cru. Much more fruit forward (and sweeter—44 grams per liter of sugar compared to 21), it's round and a mix of stone fruit and tropical notes, lush where the other wine is forbidding. But the two wines are made from the same grape varieties (Riesling and Pinot Gris, primarily, with some Gewurz in Grasberg and some Muscat in Engelgarten), with the same winemaking technique, from vineyards only 300 meters apart. Engelgarten, though, is cooler and planted on gravelly soil, while Grasberg is on limestone below calcarous/iron-based soils. And so they end up radically different wines.

I'm out the door, so the Mambourg Grand Cru will have to wait until tomorrow, as will Jean-Michel's theory of salivation as a test of wine quality. Can't wait, can you? 

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