Organic wine & food matching: Marcel Deiss Engelgarten & saffroned chicken biryani

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Randy Caparoso is an award winning wine professional and journalist, living in Denver, Colorado. For a free subscription to Randy’s Organic Wine Match of the Day, visit the Denver Wine Examiner.

In Alsace, a part of France full of famous rebels – like André Ostertag, Charles Schléret, and Zind-Humbrecht’s Olivier Humbrecht – Jean-Michel Deiss (right) has played the role of absolute pariah.

It’s not so much that he took the organically cultivated vineyards inherited from his grandfather, Marcel Deiss, and turned them into biodynamic farms by 1997. The domaines of Marc Kreydenweiss, Zind-Humbrecht, Ostertag and other top Alsatian vignerons are also farmed biodynamically. More than anything, what has rubbed colleagues and local authorities the wrong way has been Deiss’ total disregard of the sanctity of singular varietal bottling; for in Alsace, the finest wines have always been bottled by the names of the great grapes of Alsace – namely, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat d’Alsace.

Instead, Deiss’ finest wines are bottled simply by the name of Marcel Deiss along with the names of their vineyard sources: such as the grand crus Schoenenbourg and Altenberg de Bergheim vineyards, and premier crus such as Burg, Rotenberg, Gruenspiel and Engelgarten. But no mention of any grape on the label.

Deiss himself says that a turning point was in 1993, when a Riesling from his Burg vineyard was criticized for not tasting like a “Riesling.” This prompted Deiss to not just remove the names of grapes from his single vineyard bottlings, but also to start planting as many as seven different varieties in his best vineyards (which, also unusually, Deiss harvests and co-ferments all at once). No more blind following of tradition, he has said, because of obligatory feelings. “I realized that the grape in a vineyard is an ingredient, but not a dish… it is wrong to transform the energy of a unique place into a ‘Riesling’… by having many varieties in Burg I am giving the terroir different letters so it can create sentences.”

Hence, no winemaker in Alsace focuses as much on terroir as Jean-Michel Deiss. As in our organic wine of the day: the 2003 Marcel Deiss Engelgarten (about $45), which is a field blend composed mostly of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. True to Deiss’ intentions, this white wine does not taste of any one grape; but rather, in the words of Deiss’ winemaker Marie-Hélène Christofaro (right), like a “filtering” of wine through the gravel dominating Engelgarten’s soil. Nevertheless, the nose is honeyed, suggesting ripe, juicy, white fleshed stone fruits (peach, nectarine and lychee); and a steely, austere entry gives way quickly to almost sweet, viscous sensations of the honeyed fruit, before finishing with a mouth-watering bang and emphatically stony, faintly bitter, citrus peel dryness.

Peculiar, maybe even strange… yes. Expressive and flavorful… ditto…

Saffroned Chicken Biryani

And you know what I love even more about the Engelgarten? This wine’s electrifying minerality and multi-grape fruit complexity make a match for dishes few other wines in the world are up to handling. No, I’m not talking Asian/fusion sweet, sour, salty, or spicy food sensations. I’m thinking specifically of dishes dominated by the flavor of saffron – that wild, indescribably pure, organic seasoning derived directly from the stigma of the crocus flower.

Of course, being a wine guy, I do have words for saffron. To me, saffon infused foods suggest sea water, citrus peel, burnt hay, roasted clove, warm humus, dusty velvet, sun dried fruit and sex. I know many people say saffron makes them laugh, and many others just smile. Me, I just get hungry, like for this Kuwaiti style dish of saffroned chicken biryani, adapted from Peter Mentzel and Faith d’Aluisio’s Hungry Planet:

2½ cups basmati rice

1 tsp. saffron, soaked 10 minutes in warm water

2 tsp. canola oil 2 medium sweet onions, minced

4 cloves garlic, crushed ½ tsp. fresh ginger, minced

1 whole chicken (about 4 lbs.), cut into pieces

salt (to taste) 1 tbsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. turmeric 3 tsp. allspice 2 tbsp. butter

1 cup plain yogurt 1 medium fresh tomato, diced

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Optional garnishes:

1 medium sweet onion, minced (fried to brown crispness)

¼ cup golden raisins, fried

1/8 cup crushed cashews, fried

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

Heat Dutch oven pot on stove and add oil; when oil is hot, add onions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until onions are transluscent. Add chicken pieces, salt, coriander, turmeric, 1 tsp. of allspice, yogurt, tomato and lemon juice. Stir over moderate heat for 7 minutes, taking care to prevent yogurt from boiling. Add water to cover chicken, with salt to taste; cover with lid and cook at high simmer for 45 minutes. Towards end, preheat oven to 350°.

Add rice to pot with butter, saffron and remaining allspice; stir to combine. Cover pot with aluminum foil and pot lid, and cook in oven for 45 minutes. In meantime, prepare garnishes (fry raisins and cashews with onions). Remove pot from oven, stir to combine, sprinkle over garnishes, and serve.

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