Just as dogs seem to take on the characteristics of their owners, perhaps wine takes on the characteristics of the winemaker. But can grapevines take on the characteristics of their neighbors? Plants learning from plants? We’re in the neighborhood of woo here, occult forces, mystical gobbledygook, voodoo vino.
This may be the most unique and exotic wine I’ve had all year.
Let’s get the tasting note out of the way first. Sumptuous peach and citrus with honey undertones form the core of the aroma profile but a provocative layer of petrol and top notes of lychee and slight salty notes give it lots of complexity and finesse. This is a juicy, dense wine, off-dry, almost sweet, with medium-plus weight and a creamy texture upon first sip, but bristling acidity blossoms in the mid-palate giving the whole experience a lifted, ethereal quality. The ravishingly elegant finish is a heady mineral bath.
What exactly is this wine? Who knows? It’s a field blend from a Grand Cru vineyard planted with 20+ varietals in mixed plots that including Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and many members of the Pinot family. I’m not sure even the vineyard manager knows precisely what’s in the blend. At any rate, peach and hints of petrol suggest Riesling, and the lychee notes suggest Gewurztraminer. And I suspect touches of noble rot.
As good as this wine is, the story behind it is fascinating in a geeky way.
The winemaker is Jean-Michel Deiss, proprietor along with his partner Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, of Domain Marcel Deiss, named for Jean-Michel’s father who started the Domain in 1947. Deiss’s wines are highly regarded but he is a maverick, labeling his wines as vineyard designates rather than according to region and varietal as most of his fellow Alsatians do. But his vineyard labeling is more than just contrariness. Not only does he think vineyard expression more important than varietal expression, in his vineyards, Deiss claims, these multiple varietals ripen at the same time! This is a bizarre claim. Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris ripen early in the season, Riesling typically takes longer especially in cool regions. The problem with field blends is that you get a mix of varietals and various degrees of ripeness.
Why would varieties with significantly different ripening characteristics, when planted together, ripen at the same time? Are they communicating? Mind melding with Deiss? Botanical channeling? Like I said–Voodoo Vino.
Maybe it’s the stress of being a Deiss vine. Rumor has it, he sometimes builds a fence around the vine roots underground to force them to grow down through layers of rock instead of outward in the more fertile, moisture laden soil. Vine density is sometimes over 4000 plants per acre, three or four times the density of many quality vineyards, forcing each vine to struggle to get nutrition. But he then drops so much fruit that his yields are half of the average Alsatian vineyard.
In the winery, it’s low intervention, bio-dynamic winemaking for Deiss. Minimal use of sulphur, native yeasts, fermentations that can last as long as a year depending on what the grapes want to do, months on the lees in large casks, and no filtration or fining. The grapes have a mind of their own.
But you can’t argue with results. A wine of extraordinary beauty and of course there is nothing as beautiful as mystery.
This can be consumed only while listening to lush, inscrutable, ambient sound in a language that can only be felt: