Variety and Terroir

The label on a bottle of Grand Cru Schoenenbourg from Alsatian wine-grower Marcel Deiss in Bergheim (whatever you do, don’t call him a “winemaker”) is like an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages: ornate curly S from the name of the south-facing vineyard, perched above the well-preserved medieval fortified town of Riquewihr. “Schoenenbourg” in big, red Roman script (V instead of U etc) followed in descending font size by “Alsace Grand Cru”, the vintage “2004” and then smallest of all, the producer name “Marcel Deiss” in almost illegible Gothic type.

jh2 Variety and Terroir

It is the philosophical antithesis of Jean Hugel’s “Hugel Riesling Tradition 2004” made from fruit grown on the same hillside above Riquewihr. No mention of “grand cru” or vineyard name with all focus on producer and varietal.

Deiss wine-grower Jean-Michel Deiss is president of the Grand Cru Association of Alsace and of his Altenberg Grand Cru Deiss says “the production of this wine is a milestone in my life as a wine-grower and marks a break with the variety-over-terroir dominance under which the Alsace region has suffered so greatly for the past 100 years.” Both wines, the Altenberg and Schoenenbourg are made from a mélange of traditional Alsatian grapes, grown, harvested and fermented together in glorious confusion.

Hugel is a variety purist who refuses to play the grand cru game. “I must label my wine ‘Grand Cru Schoenenbourg’ which is too Teutonic for people who don’t even know where Alsace is. We enter many wine shows and get good tasting notes that other Schoenenbourg producers will then apply to their wines. I would like to use ‘Grand Cru’ without a geographic statement, but then we must control quality. Banning chaptelization would be a good first step. If you leave it up to growers, they’ll always ruin it.”

Both wines are excellent. The Hugel is fresh and intense with hints of that complexity that makes Riesling such a popular variety as it can be totally transformed with age. The Deiss is also fresh with citrus notes and herbs, great concentration and richness. Both wines have great length.

Jean-Michel Deiss is a gifted spokesman for his philosophy of co-planting various varieties in the same vineyard, an approach used to great effect by Dirk van der Niepoort in the Douro. In an essay entitled “wine, soil and sun” he sets out his philosophical stall. “Sometimes, discovering wines is a frivolous, infinitely repetitive exercise; endless words, dead, fossilized reiterations illustrating our primitive fear of the unknown. We feel the need to name the grapes to domesticate flavours we already know. And the vineyards, vines lined up on parade, perfect, vigorous and productive, reflect our need to dominate the grape, telling more of our need for certainty, of the primacy of technical skill to the exclusion of all ethical consideration, and to the death of God!”

The battle for the soul of Alsatian wine by wine-growers like Jean-Michel Deiss and Jean Hugel, with such diametrically opposed philosophies and approaches, will make the Thirty Years War look like a cakewalk. But while that terrible struggle decimated Alsace between 1618 and 1648 (the population of Deiss’ own village of Bergheim crashed from 2600 in 1610 to 20 in 1650) on the evidence of these two remarkable wines, the outcome of the current struggle is the reality of fabulous wines of authenticity and quality.
jh1 Variety and Terroir