The word terroir is a fun one to drop because:
1. many agree on its general definition
2. some dispute its validity altogether
3. others have a more specific idea of what it really is and its true role.
This last group is the most interesting, and is where one Alsatian wine legend is firmly planted. With a history of going against the grain, it should be no surprise that Domaine Marcel Deiss views terroir as synesthesia.
A what now?
Before we jump into this idea, let’s be clear that the winery did not use the word synesthesia to describe their take on terroir. That’s our word choice. But it fits nonetheless.
Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense creates involuntary activity in another. For example, hearing music might cause one to see colours in motion. Winemaker Marie-Hélène Cristofaro explains that there’s
“a saltiness in wine of terroir that creates salivation. This is the beginning of the history of terroir because the salivation creates images in our brains and these give rise to emotion.”
It’s these emotions that deepen our connection between special land and its history, the people who work(ed) the land and those who drink the result, and the stories inside all of these. If wine is the medium of expression, then the land must be complex and healthy, and the grapes grown and handled to reveal these stories in as many layers as possible. Through this lens we can learn what makes Domaine Marcel Deiss exceptional.
A history of resistance
The founder, Marcel Deiss, has a history of bucking trends and creating new ones. A former French Army officer, he established the domain in 1948 when he needed a couple house wines for his wife’s restaurant. In so doing, he turned 200 years of family grape-farming into a winemaking venture unto itself.
By the 1960s, Alsace was naming wine by grape variety, like Germany does. More than that, Alsace wine law required the grape name to identify Grand or Premier Cru. For example, your label couldn’t just say “Mambourg Grand Cru”. It had to say “Mambourg Gewurztraminer Grand Cru,” or some version of it.
“I don’t think so,” thought Marcel. He had ancestors to answer to, and so his next battle began.
His position was this:
The top wines in France and the laws designed to guarantee them are more about soil and place than about individual grape varieties. Sure, some regions bottle varietal wine (like Burgundy) and are only allowed to use that grape to earn their designations. But the highest quality designations do NOT ALLOW the grapes to be named. Your label cannot read, “Le Musigny Pinot Noir Grand Cru,” for example. It’s just “Le Musigny Grand Cru”. So, why should this be different for Alsace?
13 grapes X 13 soils = a total picture
Marcel believed that at the highest levels, the “true” terroir of Alsace wine is the field blend. He based this belief on Alsace’s highly varied soil types (the most of all French wine regions) and that 13 individual grape varieties are designated for Alsace AOC wine. The Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites lie higher up the hillsides with 80- to 65-metre roots. With all these varieties’ deep roots in different soils across a single vineyard, you end up with the most complete and authentic version of that vineyard’s expression. Indeed, Marie-Hélène explains that,
“The grape variety is like a pen. It helps you tell the story
but doesn’t decide what you want to write.”
What’s so special about Deiss’s vineyards?
The greatness of their wines isn’t just about field blends and naming conventions. You can still do those things and make poor wine. One of the Domaine’s calling cards is their planting density and resultant yields. Where many Alsatian growers plant 3,000 to 4,000 vines per hectare (and where today 10,000 is considered extreme even in places like Burgundy), Deiss has up to 12,000 vines per hectare in their top sites (and start at 8,000 for the village wines). One Pinot Noir section even has an astonishing 27,000 plants per hectare, but they only make 200 bottles from it.
This high density creates competition among the vines for extremely low yields both per vine and per hectare. To compare with typical Alsace, Deiss has:
• three times higher density (8,000 – 12,000 vines per hectare versus 3,000 – 6,000)
• three times lower yield (25 – 30 hl/ha versus up to 80 for AOC or 68 for 1er Cru)
• three times more labour
On top of the triple-extra work from the high density, Deiss farms biodynamically across their 32 planted hectares. This involves highly labour-intensive work in and outside of the vineyards. And since biodynamics is about a diverse, whole, and healthy total natural environment, we move closer still to the notion of a place’s true expression. Marie-Hélène even includes their 13 varieties as contributing to biodiversity.
The labels—back to synesthesia
With their belief that tasting true wine of terroir creates images that give rise to emotions, the winery has embarked on a re-think of their labels to visually evoke the drinking experience. The new labels’ colour patterns and geometry depict the mood and character each soil and wine expresses.
Marie-Hélène explains, for example, that the oranges and yellows on Berckem’s label evoke warmth, like the stony soil. My tasting notes on this wine (before knowing all this) include ripe tangerine and yellow apple. On the other hand, Altenberg’s high clay content makes it dark, cool and complex, like a tortured poet. But it also sees Noble Rot every year, so there’s always an earthy sweetness underlying it all
As you can well imagine, Marcel won the battle. The appellation authorities granted him use of Grand Cru on labels without requiring the grape variety. Today, Marcel’s grandson, Jean-Michel, and Jean-Michel’s wife, Marie-Hélène, bottle among the most sought-after Alsace wines from Grand and Premier Cru, Village, and Alsace AOC sites.
Terroir as diversity
I sat on a cobblestone patio in Colmar. There were four tables around us. At one table, the fluid swirling waiter spoke German. At another, French. At the next, Italian. At ours, English. And at the last, Spanish. Around our restaurant and hugging us in, every building had its own unique colour and slightly different design details, yet were all of that distinct exposed-beam half-timbered style. And in the surrounding vineyards, 13 varieties were growing together or apart, speaking as one or on their own.
Given the history of this land, where wars were fought to defend diversity and resist the propagation of a single race, it’s important to recognize that individuality creates a diversity of togetherness. It’s what makes the feeling of being In Alsace unique: the confluence of differences that creates the total flavour of the place.