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Mar042013

How to visit Alsace ... 

(Taken from my chapter in Alsace contributed to : Great Wine Tours of the World, New Holland.

 

A land of idyllic medieval villages nestled cosily in voluptuous, fertile hillsides peppered with majestic church steeples, castle ruins, riotous flower displays and pastel-coloured timbered cottages – we are in Alsace. As if the vines were breathing life into the villages, the air is an intoxicating contradiction of spicy fruitiness and mineral freshness. With its magic trilogy of history, culture and gastronomy set against the vividly colourful backdrop of viticulture, Alsace makes a perfect picture.

Alsace is one of France’s oldest wine-producing regions. There were over 160 wine-growing districts by the end of the first millennium. During the Middle Ages, the wines were reputed to be among the best that Europe had to offer. Alsace has been passed back and forth between Germany and France for much of its existence. Despite this continual upheaval and the constant interruptions and destruction caused by war, the wine trade struggled on, and many of the most reputable names are long-established: Dopff (1574), Trimbach (1626), Hugel (1637).

Today, Alsace’s 119 wine-growing towns and villages produce more than 160 million bottles, of which 25 per cent are exported. Alsace produces 18 per cent of the total French still-white-wine output. Ninety-two per cent of Alsace and Alsace Grand Cru wines are dry, aromatic whites. Alsace’s appellations are unique in France because the wines are labelled according to grape variety as opposed to the vineyard. The vineyard or village is not mentioned unless the wine is a Grand Cru.

There are seven major grape varieties in Alsace: the Pinot Noir, and the Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Tokay Pinot Gris, Riesling and Muscat. The wines are then organised by quality levels and either belong to the AC Alsace appellation or to the AC Grand Cru appellation. The Crémant d’Alsace appellation is for sparkling wine produced in the same way as Champagne and mainly from Pinot Blanc. Then there are levels of ripeness; either Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) or Sélection de Grains Nobles (selection of noble grains). VT wines are made using very ripe grapes picked later than normal, usually in October. SGN wines have been made from individually selected botrytised grapes.

The subtly majestic Vosges mountain range protects the region from the ocean, creating a unique microclimate. Alsace is one of the driest parts of France and enjoys a semi-continental climate, which means lots of sun, heat and dryness – perfect for the slow, extended hang-time (ripening period) needed by the grapes. Even more importantly, Alsace’s white grape varieties do so well here because of the patchwork of granite, limestone, gneiss, schist and sandstone soils which impart acidity and structure to the wine. The vineyards are also planted on slopes rather than valleys, which provide good drainage and require them to grow deep roots. This also allows the vines to receive the right amount of sunshine at the right time of the day. 

While Alsace may appear traditional, it is one of the most forward-thinking regions in Europe. The 170 kilometre-long Route du Vin, at the base of the Vosges and alongside the banks of the Rhine River, is tourist-orientated without being kitsch or gaudy. The Alsatians are a neat, organised and orderly lot and every village has a tourist office, while the region itself has several award-winning websites and CD ROMs to guide visitors. The wineries are located in the villages themselves and are accessible by foot (most towns centres prohibit cars anyway). They are open to the public and offer tastings.

The spring months are a flurry of carnival parades, fancy-dress balls, classical and jazz concerts, flea markets and more. From April to August, every village has its own wine fair with dancing and copious consumption of the local wines and gastronomic specialities. In September, October and November, the Harvest Wine Festivals are held. Then from the 24th of November to the 7th of December, when the picture postcard villages are covered in a light blanket of snow, Alsace is transformed into a fairy-tale kingdom. More than fifty outdoor markets from Colmar to Strasbourg light up with illuminated decorations. Bakeries make mennele (little bread men), carollers stroll and sing. St Nicolas distributes goodies. There is nothing more enthralling than strolling down a cobbled lane sipping a grog, dodging snowflakes, and admiring the hand-made traditional toys and tree decorations for sale, to the sound of an outdoor classical concert.

 

Not to be missed in Alsace are the many regional specialities that so perfectly marry the wines. The fresh and fruity Sylvaner is ideal with the local salade Vosgienne (mushrooms, red potatoes, Munster cheese, cumin, smoked lardons, croutons and poached eggs) or with flammenküeche (a thin flat bread dough rectangle filled with lightly fried onions, cream and smoked bacon). Riesling, the pride of Alsace with its delicate fruit and subtle bouquet, is the perfect mate for choucroute (a dish of boiled meats, sauerkraut and potatoes) or with a savoury kougelhopf (a brioche filled with perhaps salmon and pike). The full-bodied aromatic Gewürztraminer is ideal with spicy exotic dishes, strong cheeses or the famous tarte aux pommes à l’alsacienne. The easy going and fresh Pinot Blanc goes with most anything, but is best with fish. The Tokay Pinot Gris falls somewhere between the steely crispness of a Riesling and the sweeter opulence of a Gewürztraminer. It’s a perfect match for the baeckaoffa (a slow-cooked marinated meat stew with onions, potatoes and seasonings). Alsatian Pinot Noir is not like the red Burgundies we know, it is lighter and fruitier, almost a rosé. It is especially good with the presskopf (a terrine of fresh wild salmon, lobster and oysters in a creamy sauce of caviar, parsley, tarragon and chives). The Crémant d’Alsace is light, refreshing and crisp. Like Champagne, it can take an entire meal from hors d’oeuvres to dessert.

If you have a week available, then start your tour in Strasbourg and head to Marlenheim – the northern gateway to the Route du Vin and work your way down to Thann, the southernmost gateway of the route. Both towns have information points that provide maps, guides and explanations of Alsace’s wine history, grapes and terroirs. If you have only a few days, then make Colmar your base and visit its surrounding villages. The best time to visit is between April and December.

Let’s start at Colmar, the capital of the Route du Vin. Must visit: the Foire Régionale in August, Bartholdi’s birthplace (built the Statue of Liberty in New York – 1866); the Bibliothèque (Library) housed in the Dominicans Convent; Underlinden Museum, the ‘Maison des Têtes’, Maison Pfister, Petit Venise Canal and Saint-Mattieu’s Temple. Must taste: Domaine Schoffit.

Next to Bergheim (20 km north of Colmar) home to the famous Gewürztraminer Grand Cru l’Altenberg de Bergheim. Must visit: the 14th-century Gothic church, vineyard trail, 14th-century upper gateway, Gewürztraminer feast in August. Must taste: Marcel Deiss, Gustave Lorentz, Spielmann.

 

Head down the road towards Colmar and  you arrive in Ribeauvillé, home to the Grands Crus vineyards of Geisberg and Osterberg.  Must visit: parish church of Saint Gregory the Great (13 to 15th century), Town Hall with its jewellery museum, old towers with stork nests, remains of the ‘Three castles’ of Ribeaupierre (12 to 13th century), Renaissance Fountain. Must taste: Henri Fuchs, F.E. Trimbach, Caves de Ribeauvillé, André Kientzler.

 

Next stop is Riquewihr (15 km north of Colmar), the best preserved medieval and Renaissance village and home to the Grands Crus Sporen and Schoenenbourg. Must visit: Grands Crus vineyard trail, 16th-century fortifications and outer defences, 13th-century Reichenstein castle ruins, Thieve’s Tower Museum with torture chambers. Must taste: Hugel et Fils, Dopff au Moulin, Engel, Mittnacht Klack.

 

Kaysersberg is next (8 km northwest from Colmar) on the tour. Famous for its medieval architecture and being the birthplace of Dr Albert Schweitzer (Nobel Peace Prize 1952). Must visit: Renaissance well, castle ruins, fortified bridge, and famous Christmas market. Must taste: Domaine Weinbach’s Riesling, Cave Kientzheim-Kayserberg, Roger Baradel’s smoked meats.

 

One of the best wine villages in Alsace is Ammerschwihr (8 kms north of Colmar). It has one Grand Cru,Wineck-Schlossberg which, with Kaefferkopf, produces superior Rieslings, Muscats and Gewürztraminers.  Must visit: vine garden, Vinogast celebration on 2nd weekend of December, April Wine Fair, Saint-Martin’s church. Must taste: Martin Schaetzel.

 

Continuing down the Route du Vin, past Colmar, you arrive at Turkheim (7 kms south from Colmar). Considered to produce the best Pinot Noir in Alsace, it is home to the Grand Cru Brand, which is planted with Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Must visit: Stork’s park, Sainte-Anne’s church with 1190 belfry porch, Renaissance Town Hall and Hôtel des Deux Clefs, the town crier at 10pm on summer evenings. Must taste: Cave de Turckheim, Zind-Humbrecht, Meyer.

 

Wintzenheim  (4 km west of Colmar) has one of the most famous terroirs in all of Alsace: Grand CruHengst, and is dominated by the Hohlandsbourg and Pflixbourg castles. Must visit: flower market on the first Saturday of May, Autumn Festival first weekend of October, Christmas market, scenic route of the Five Castles and remains of the Gallo-Roman villa (1st to 4th century) on the Hengst slope. Must taste: Josmeyer, Krick, Schoepfer.

 

At the foot of the Trois Châteaux (‘three castles’) you stumble upon Eguisheim (5 km south of Colmar), a medieval city built in three concentric circles around its castle. It is the birthplace of Pope Saint Leo IX in 1002. It is also home to the famous Grand Cru vineyards of Eichberg and Pfersigberg, both producing fantastic Gewürztraminers. Must visit: vineyard trail with guided visits and tastings from the tourism office, church with Roman tympanum, historic half-timbered houses, tithe manors, remains of octagonal Roman castle, wine growers’ festival on the fourth weekend of August. Must taste: Léon Beyer, Bruno Sorg.

 

Finally, Guebwiller (30 km south of Colmar) is the only Alsace commune with four Grands Crus: Kessler, Kitterlé, Saering and Spiegel. Must visit: 14th-century church and former convent, now a musical centre, 12th-century Saint-Léger’s church, wine Fair on Ascension Day. Must taste: Schlumberger.

 

THE CHIEF GRAPES

Gewürztraminer

Muscat d’Alsace

Pinot Blanc

Pinot Noir

Riesling

Sylvaner

Tokay Pinot Gris

 

LEADING WINES (APPELLATIONS)

AC. Alsace

AC. Alsace Grand Cru

Crémant d’Alsace

 

MAIN PRODUCERS

Cave Vinicole de Ribeauvillé, Ribeauvillé

Andre Kientzler, Ribeauvillé

Domaine du Clos Saint-Landelin, Rouffach

Kuentz Bas, Husseren-les-Châteaux

Léon Beyer, Enguisheim

Lucien Albrecht, Orschwihr

Marcel Deiss, Bergheim

Ostertag, Epfig

Paul Blanck, Kientzheim

Schlumberger, Guebwiller

Schoffit, Colmar

Weinbach-Colette Faller et ses fils, Kayserberg

Zind-Humbrecht, Turckheim

Dopff au Moulin, Riquewihr

Hugel & Fils, Riquewihr

Trimbach, Ribeauvillé

 

MAIN TOWNS

Strasbourg

Molsheim

Barr

Sélestat

Ribeauvillé

Colmar

Guebwiller

Thann

Mulhouse

 

AIRPORTS (connections from Paris)

Strasbourg–Entzheim Airport (15 km from Strasbourg) 

Colmar Airport (mostly private) 

Mulhouse–Bâle (Basel) Airport (25 km from Mulhouse) 

Train: Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse

 

 

 

SUMMARY OF TOUR – Route du Vin

Bas-Rhin (Northern Alsace)

Merlenheim – Dahlenheim – Bergbieten – Wolxheim – Molsheim – Heiligenstein – Barr – Mittelbergheim – Andlau – Nothalten – Dambach-la-Ville

 

Haut-Rhin (Southern Alsace)

St-Hippolyte – Rodern – Bergheim – Ribeauvillé – Hunawihr – Riquewihr – Bennwihr - Mittelwihr – Kientzheim – Sigolsheim – Ammerschwihr – Ingersheim – Colmar - Turckheim – Wintzenheim – Wettolsheim – Eguisheim – Gueberschwihr – Pfaffenheim – Soultzmatt – Rouffach – Westhelten – Orschwihr – Guebwiller – Thann

 

Contact info:

Email: civa@civa.fr

www.vinsalsace.com

www.alsace-info.com

 

RESTAURANTS

Au Crocodile, Strasbourg (Tel: 33.03.88.32.13.02, E-mail: crocodile@relaischateaux.fr)

Restaurant Buerehiesel, Strasbourg (Tel: 33.03.88.45.56.65, E-mail: buerehiesel@relaischateaux.fr

Meistermann, Colmar (Tel: 33.3.89.41.65.64), www.meistermann.com

L’Auberge au Zannacher, Ribeauvillé (Tel.: 33.03.89.73.60.77)

L’Auberge de l’Ill, Illhausern (tel.: 33.03.89.71.89.00

 

HOTEL/RESTAURANTS

La Cheneaudière, Colroy-La –Roche (Tel: 33.03.88.97.61.64, Email: cheneaudiere@relaischateaux.fr

Abbaye La Pommeraie, Selestat (Tel: 33.03.88.92.07.84, Email:  pommeraie@relaischateaux.fr

Le Marechal, Colmar (Tel.: 03.89.41.43.07)

Château de Barembach, Colmar (Tel.: 03.88.97.97.50)

 

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