Once a pariah in Alsace for eschewing single-varietal wines, Jean-Michel Deiss remains a winemaking nonconformist. Stephen Brook meets him.
The trim, smiling man before me is not the Jean- Michel Deiss I remember. On my first visit to his estate in 1993 he struck me as wild-eyed and dogmatic (although his 1990 Rieslings were terrific). In 2002 his then wife tried to cancel my appointment as he was unwell, but he rose from his sickbed to present his wines. Deiss is not a man to lose an opportunity to expound his ideas.
The Deiss I encounter in 2008 is more relaxed. He is no longer afraid of being a pariah in Alsace and has even been elected to represent the grands crus in bureaucratic negotiations. There is a new wife (also his winemaker) and a baby daughter to boot. Once considered a gifted eccentric, Deiss is now revered by wine lovers worldwide. In the 1990s he made two decisions.
The first was to convert his domaine to biodynamic viticulture, a move shared by many top growers. The second, and more radical, was to reject the notion of singlevarietal wines that had become he norm in Alsace. Instead he planted up to seven varieties in his vineyards, then harvested and vinified them together. He explains how his journey started: ‘I studied winemaking in Beaune and learned to make perfect wines that I couldn’t drink. Their nitrogen content made me ill. My pancreas turned me into a biodynamist. I graduated in 1973 and worked with Jean Hugel, who became my mentor. We have different ideas but are close friends.
‘At the beginning I was a grower who did things I didn’t understand but felt obliged to do. I was a peasant. I had knowledge but no understanding. We all do things without thinking about them. Why does a Meursault grower age his wines in barrels? Most of them have never given it a thought but do it anyway. In Sauternes, growers don’t worry much about the chemistry of botrytis. A Sauternes grower just thinks botrytis.
‘I’m no intellectual, I’m more like a sponge. I am a sensual man: I feel everything but cannot always express myself. My journey has been continuous, infused by history, by landscape, by everything around me. I came to realise that terroir and reflecting it in our wines is an obligation, not a choice. Terroir doesn’t check to see if it accords with your taste. Some great terroirs just impose themselves. They are the last repository of non-conformity, of something sacred. Alsace is rich in great terroirs, and not only the grands crus.’ Deiss followed the single-varietal route until 1990. In 1993 wine from his Burg vineyard was attacked for not tasting like Riesling.
‘This was a revelation. So I removed the varietal name from my Burg wines. I realised the grape in a vineyard is an ingredient but not a dish. My task was to stabilise the actual taste of Burg rather than emphasise just one element, the variety.’ So he planted multiple varieties within the same vineyard, which, he claims, is simply a return to the way things were a century ago – and still are in regions such as Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. ‘The concept of a pure single-varietal wine is relatively new. Cultivating a great vineyard is an act of faith – continuum after 1,000 years of viticulture in the same place. It’s wrong to transform the energy of a unique place into a “Riesling”. That said, it’s not that I don’t value varieties. I recently intervened with the authorities in Paris to protect rare Alsatian grapes like Sylvaner Rosé from extinction. Now such varieties will be legally recognised as cépages accessoires, and can comprise 10% of a blend.’
I point out that in Austria it is common practice to plant many varieties in the same vineyard. If you order a glass of Gemischter Satz, you’ll get such a wine.
‘But,’ intervenes Deiss, ‘they did that for security. If one variety failed to ripen, the others probably would. My idea of complantation is different. I train my vines so they ripen together, are picked together and vinified together. My wines are not blends.’ He takes me to the Burg vineyard. ‘The different varieties here flower and ripen on the same days, as it’s the terroir that creates the conditions. I don’t know the proportions of the varieties as I grafted many of them and some of the grafts didn’t take. If there’s an element that doesn’t integrate with the rest of the community of vines, the terroir will reject it and it won’t flower. By having many varieties in Burg I am giving the terroir different letters so it can create sentences.’
It’s hard to understand how the growth patterns of different varieties can be so uniform – I had to take what Deiss said on trust. But many winemakers, including Olivier Humbrecht of Zind- Humbrecht, are sceptical about his claims that his complanted vines ripen simultaneously. Some years ago Deiss began planting to a density of 13,000 vines per hectare in grand cru Altenberg, well above the norm in Alsace. High density, he says, forces competing root systems to forage deeply for nutrients. ‘If the roots remain close to the surface you are dependent on the climate: very dry or wet weather can devastate a crop. But if your roots are deep, then the vines function independently of the climate and survive all conditions.’ He is relieved that he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. His refusal to specify the grape variety on the label of his grands crus was technically illegal and infuriated the authorities until, in 2005, he succeeded in having the rules changed to permit it. He feels vindicated.
Now, other estates in Bergheim are experimenting with complantation, and his influence extends to Long Island, New York, where Channing Daughters winery now produces an Alsatian-style field blend. What seemed 10 years ago to be a dangerously revolutionary idea is close to being a new orthodoxy, although producers such as Trimbach fiercely oppose the jettisoning of varietal wines.
Deiss’s winemaking is non-interventionist. He decides when to pick by tasting the grapes. ‘When they’re fully ripe it becomes hard to identify the variety,’ he adds. There is no crushing, no pumping, no chaptalisation. The wines age on the lees in large casks and he has devised an especially gentle filter to avoid disturbing the balance of the wine at bottling. When I taste the rich 2005s, Deiss challenges me to guess the residual sugar; my guesses are well below the actual levels. He says that is because the acidity is very high but the wines’ natural balance means they taste neither too sweet nor too acidic.
‘It’s difficult to lay down rules about whether a Riesling should be dry or have residual sweetness, as there are certain terroirs that simply won’t produce a dry Riesling. It’s the terroir that determines how the fermentation concludes. Some sites, such as Altenberg, always get some botrytis. So Altenberg always has residual sugar while Mambourg has little or none.’ Deiss is still given to gnomic utterances. ‘There is no such thing as quality,’ he declares. ‘Quality is simply the meeting point of a product and its consumer.’ Or: ‘Often questions are more interesting than answers. Answers close a question.’
During spells of insomnia he admits to reading the letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux online. He also luxuriates in sweeping rhetoric, treating me to a lecture on the standardisation of wines or, in his more colourful phrase, ‘the neo-Stalinism – the gulag – of taste’. Some of his ringing declarations can come across as studied. He once told me: ‘I can tell when a wine has been mistreated. When I taste it, I know the name of the pump, the programme of the press, and the tears roll down my cheek. The bitterness of a bad Gewurztraminer is the expression of its suffering, its maltreatment!’
Deiss has always been fluent and forthright, but an element of showmanship has crept in. He seems to relish the awe in which many regard him. Yet, behind the grandiloquence, I sense a man who feels profoundly that he is at the service of ancient terroirs. And although he is pleased to have followers, he is no missionary determined to convert the heathen and insists he has no wish to impose his ideas on others. When I ask him if he would ever be tempted to make wine elsewhere, he replies wearily: ‘I am often asked that and the answer is no. For me to learn about a new terroir would take 30 years, and I don’t see the point in just turning up and making wines without understanding the culture of a region. Here in Alsace I can work with a vast palette of terroirs.’