Why is this Wine so Yummy?
About Marcel Deiss
Patterns and habits are created day after day, year after year, decisions are made around us that can influence us for decades, for centuries. There are 13 permitted varieties in Alsace, yet 61 are endemic to the region, each has 100’s of clones, yet, one clone of Riesling has spread throughout most of Alsace creating a monoculture. If a single clone gives uniformity and simplicity, how can it possibly offer complexity, intrigue, the full potential and, personality of a vineyard? How long will it take to build diversity again? The life cycle of vineyards is measured in decades. If you don’t have real conviction in your beliefs you’ll never have a remote chance of realising your dreams.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Jean-Michel and Mathieu Deiss stand in the Arena!
If you’re expecting to taste the typical you won’t, you need to take a step back to the basics. What makes a good drink? What defines a great drink? Drinking the labours of the Deiss family is inspiring. The deep thought and willingness to stand at odds with the powerbrokers of the French wine industry shows a level of conviction that most are not willing to even consider.
This conviction sees them pushing biodiversity and biodynamics in the vineyard well beyond the point most have stopped. Key to this, complantation, explored in detail below.
Complantation is the art of mixing grape varieties in a terroir. It is the oldest form of viticulture known before the appearance of clones and the depletion of biodiversity. It ensures regular harvests by creating a complex and naturalist ecosystem. Conducted with a real respect for life, our vineyard is planted with the 13 Alsatian grape varieties, driven, harvested and pressed together, vinified with patience and without inputs.
Before you say, Paul’s gone all ‘Oooga Booga’, anyone who knows me well will tell you that I will not let any grape growing or winemaking philosophy be an excuse for lazy, lowest common denominator winemaking or the insidious faults some choose to accept.
Deiss, father and son, show a level of conviction well beyond that of most.
The end result is wines that shine bright in a sea of standardised dross.
The video below gives an inkling of into the Deiss approach. Head to their website for more.
In the Vineyard
The framework for vineyard management here is around Biodiversity under a Biodynamic approach.
The step that takes Deiss into another category is the use of complantation. In Alsace, just as in most of the vineyards of the world, plantings are typically blocked out with a single variety for each section. Historically, it was common for complantation to be the norm where a number of varieties were planted to a site simply to manage risk. Deiss is taking this further by breaking up the mono-culture of vines by planting fruit trees after every eight rows of vines.
Whatever your thoughts on these practices may be the proof is in the glass. Applying these practices has consequences, yields at Diess are incredibly low with the Grand Crus around 20hl/ha, a necessity to ensure aligned maturity of the different varieties at the single picking time. Though I am sure that it would be possible to harvest independantly although it would be challenging. Compare this to 35-45hl/ha often permitted for DRC’s Grand Crus and the financial sacrifice made to take this approach becomes clear.
Deiss explores complantation below.
The complantation in practice
by Jean-Michel & Mathieu Deiss
The historical role of complantation, or crowd planting, is not well known to the public. Indeed, to fully understand complantation, one must go back to the time when winegrowers were still peasants, and not “wine growers”. The first notable difference lies in the question of self-sufficiency: before the recent progress in agriculture in the last century, plant material for wine growing, to use modern terms, had been selected with little technical skill. The varieties (grape varieties) were very varied, and there was a great deal of variation in susceptibility to coulure. At that time, Europe did not know the question of “modern” diseases (mainly mildew and oidium, imported from the United States with the first rootstocks), so the question of losses due to coulure was THE central issue! And the logical, peasant answer, known for centuries, was to plant the different “mixed” varieties in the field: the losses of some were then compensated by the production of others. The following year, under different flowering conditions, the balance was reversed! Time has returned the proportions and selection characteristic of the place, but never in the “modern” purity (100%) of a single variety, far too risky technically for the winegrowers’ livelihood. Let us recall in passing that historically the winegrowers were the poorest farmers: they worked in the least fertile places, the vines being cultivated on poor soils (limestone, schist, granite, etc), or on steep slopes (where marl can also be found), and above all “failing” to be able to plant another crop! Thus, as time went by, and well before the legal texts of our modern appellations were put in place, it was a question of local wines above all, not being able to name the wines other than by their origin, for lack of pure grape varieties! Thus, the meaning of appellations must be clearly understood: far from creating place names, it was above all the fruit of a desire to protect winegrowers from usurpation, and to a second extent, to “protect” them from globalisation, globalisation, already well underway at the time!
The disappearance of complantation as a majority cultivation method can be attributed to two major reasons:
1. The disappearance of the historic vineyard by phylloxera, which opened the way to further varietal research, hence the door to a “rationalized” and massive replanting from clones. The oldest vines, pre-phylloxera, and of course planted in mixture, are still found in the appellations where some sands are present (and where phylloxera could not therefore contaminate the plots). Naturally, the modern text of the appellation having then been adapted to these historical situations, we can see that it allows the production of wines both “pure” or almost “pure”, and with a large number of grape varieties. Châteauneuf du Pâpe is a famous example of this!
2. Finally, the second factor is the gunpowder factories, which had no use for it after the Second World War, and which have found a very practical use in the food shortage that marked the post-war period: the production of the first industrial fertilisers, whose manufacture is known to be very close to that of gunpowder, and whose combination with the first herbicides, contributed to a considerable increase in the vigour of the vineyards. For the complantation, it is essential to understand that the yield is the only key to harvest the plot at a sufficiently homogeneous maturity. Indeed, the more vigorous the vines are, the greater the differences between the grape varieties; conversely, the less vigorous the vines are, the more the maturity advances at the same rate, due to the natural limitations imposed by the terroir.
NB: we can also think that historically, over-vigouring never existed before herbicides and fertilizers, as the plants were always in competition with each other, or at least with the surrounding grasses, which the winegrower removed as well as possible by picking the plots (twice a year, which was far from giving a result related to the current herbicides, which are also synthetic, just like fertilizers). Finally, the last explanatory factor for the interest of complantation, which is not well known, but which the latest studies gently highlight: communication between plants! It is therefore important to understand the plant as a living being: that is to say that it communicates with its fellow creatures, in a language of its own (root exudate, hormone secretion, etc.).
Thus I am persuaded that a complantation is a “large family”, which lives together, communicates together, and finally has a group behaviour that surpasses the behaviour that each of these grape varieties would have individually (what happens when a grape variety is planted alone, or surrounded by… itself (clones) ! The idea of a terroir in harmony with the vines that grow there, and which would therefore mark the “family” then takes on its full meaning!
60 signs at the service of the Place
During this decade, we will gradually learn that this complantation, first mixing the 13 traditional Alsatian grape varieties and then gradually adding the 47 old orphan vines present in Schoenenbourg, will form on certain terroirs an alphabet of 60 signs serving the place, constituting the first form of intrinsic viticultural biodiversity: we have finally freed ourselves from the constrained and unnatural framework of monoculture wine growing! Little by little we have completed this work of biodiversity with biological soil management, Biodynamics, under-cover sowing, agroforestry, and concern for bees and birds. After the Covid-19 pandemic, a new adventure began: that of the viticulture of the living, where the farmer becomes even more observer than actor, where heavy interventions are banned, where mechanization becomes the exception. To lead the vine in cordon, on a totally covered ground, satisfying himself with the yield of the place itself, linked to the innate fertility shared between all the covers, all the legitimate hosts of the soil, mushrooms, bacteria, plants, animals and men mixed together. The wines resulting from this approach will deliver unknown sensations, flavours to be rediscovered, an obvious naturalness, a new virginity!
Biodynamics in practice
Biodynamics is the most respectful way towards nature, which allows us to express each of our terroirs with a deep originality. It implements the root work of the plant, in an environment free of synthetic products. It is based on the following points:
In the vineyard:
- Respect for astronomical cycles
- Implementation of biodynamic preparations
- Exclusion of weed killers, by working the soil, which also allows good colonisation of the soil by the roots, and thus full expression of the terroir.
- The exclusive contribution of compost, which supports the soil’s microbial life, because synthetic fertilisers disorganise the soil and bring excessive vine growth.
- Exclusive use of natural products (nettle, horsetail, sulfur, …) to fight against diseases, and therefore total exclusion of synthetic products that are highly toxic for the environment (groundwater, peripheral fauna and flora) but that are also found in grapes and wine.
- Use of massal selections and planted grape varieties to respect biodiversity
- Encouraging the development of wildlife and auxiliary forest by restoring hedges, fruit trees and insect or mammal nests in the vineyard.
In the Winery
In the cellar:
- No synthetic yeasts are used, only natural yeasts from each grape and each vineyard.
- Respect for the natural fermentation process: no addition of nitrogen deficiency correctors, no addition of bacteria or enzymes; no aromatic additives.
- No chaptalization or acidification or deacidification.
- o addition of gum arabic.
One of the most significant areas of influence in the Deiss cellars is the pressing process. Cycles lasting as long as 10 hours. If you simply want to get separate the liquid from the solids a pneumatic press will do the job in an hour and a half. The fully ripe grapes allowing extract from the skins to add flavour and texture rather than diluting the juice.
The 2017 Vintage at Deiss
Where in the World is Marcel Deiss?
Marcel Deiss is located in Bergheim near Ribeauvillé. Their vineyards are in and around Ribeauville, Riquewihr, and, Turkheim. At the top of the tree are parcels of the Grand Crus Mambourg, Altenberg de Bergheim, Schoenenbourg, and, a new parcel in Schlossberg.
Alsace is a relatively thin strip of vineyards in the northeast of France that over the years has swapped from French to German rule and back again many times. Vins Alsace has an excellent fully interactive map with several 360° views and breakdowns by vineyard, soil type and more.
The interactive map below by Fernando Betata marks out the Grand Crus of Alsace.