The following article by Angus Hughson appeared in the September issue of The Australian – Wish Magazine.

Get off the beaten track

Instead of reaching for the familiar, have fun exploring different wines, such as these superb Alsatian blends

Great wine can be broken into two neat little segments. One portion is made up of the grand, famous wines of the world from the finest regions: Champagne, Bordeaux, Barolo, Barossa, Burgundy and Napa Valley, to name a few. These are wines bought and adored by trophy hunters round the globe. Every sommelier knows these standards well and has a repertoire to appeal to the collective palate.

Yet, to stick with such wines, the tried and the true, at every occasion is to miss much of what the world of wine has to offer. For the grapevine can perform miracles in countless regions. There are adored wines and those akin to the shrinking violet. Fame alone does not illustrate greatness. In fact, as often as not, fame can be attributable to formidable marketing prowess.

A different tack is to look outside the stock-standard offerings in search of great wines that surprise and delight, wines that veer away from the expected and bring a sensory adventure. It could be Sagrantino from Umbria, Furmint from Hungary or Carignan from the south of France – wines with personality and character that break the mould. Sometimes it is choices in the vineyard, unique blends made at odds with the status quo, which manage to capture in a moment the essence of the finest regional vineyards.

In the far east of France, near the Ribeauville fault lines, is a wine producer that delights in creating such wines. Domaine Marcel Deiss was created in 1947, although the history of the family as grape growers dates back to 1744. Today, it is run by Marcel’s grandson, Jean-Michel and his wife Clarisse, along with winemaker Marie-Helene Cristofaro. What makes the Deiss wines stand out is their rare depth of character, which must in part arise from Deiss’s unique philosophies on vine-growing and grape production.

The Marcel Deiss base in Alsace is unique for France in that wines are usually labelled according to their grape varieties – riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and pinot blanc being the finest. But, for Deiss, making wines with single varietals, while making life simpler for the drinker, actually destroys much of what makes Alsatian wines great: a synergy between its varieties that shows itself in blends from the finest sites.

Until 2005, the best sites or Grand Crus in Alsace could only be planted with a single grape variety. Deiss, through sheer force of will and quality in the bottle, managed to convince the lawmakers that his single vineyard blends were also worthy of hallowed Grand Cru status, putting them among the finest wines of the region. By blending up to 13 grape varieties for his Grand Crus, Deiss is able to craft unique, vibrant and texturally complex wines that intrigue and excite.

He follows biodynamic viticultural techniques, treating the vineyards according to the position of the moon and stars. His planting is haphazard, with different varieties mixed and he is unfussed by the exact proportions of each variety in each blend, believing the vineyards choose which varieties will flourish in line with their soil types and geography while rejecting those less suitable.

The wines ferment slowly with natural yeasts, often up to a full year and usually stopping early before all the residual sugar has gone, leaving them off-dry to medium- sweet. It is a far from fashionable state of affairs but in these wines it makes perfect sense, such is their rich texture, aromatic fruit and background sweetness, making them a beautiful match with spicy food. They are thrilling examples of wines with superb texture and fruit complexity that stand among the world’s greats.

Marcel Deiss Pinot Blanc 2009

Pinot Blanc is normally the most delicately flavoured of the Pinot family but not in the hands of Jean-Michel Deiss, who has fashioned a generously aromatic style with lifted green apple, peach flower and smoky aromatics finishing with a rich texture punctuated by firm acidity and a little balanced sweetness.

Marcel Deiss Altenberg Grand Cru 2004

Thirteen grape varieties create a multi-layered and sensually textured style, starting with a slightly amber colour, complex pear, orange liqueur aromatics that build in the glass. In the mouth, the wine is decadent and dense, yet it retains focus despite significant sweetness, finishing fresh, lively and drying with distinct minerality. A sensory journey of epic proportions.

Marcel Deiss Burg 2004

One of its Premier Crus, this is fashioned from marl soils and, while predominantly made from gewurztraminer and riesling, includes all 13 white varieties permitted in an Alsace. Aromas of honey, pear, lychee fruit and hints of botrytis lead to a complete and richly textured palate with significant sweetness, finishing long and distinguished. Still youthful, it will drink well for 10 years or more.