France's oldest wine route is also one of the world's best.
By Roger Voss
Nothing makes a vacation more memorable than good weather. Except for Michelin-starred cuisine, mountain-vineyard hiking, festivals in tiny villages frozen in Gothic-Medieval time and winemakers who love to pour their delicious wines.
Expect all of that and more in Alsace, France’s white wine capital and the second-driest spot in France.
La Route des Vins d’Alsace (The Alsace Wine Route) is a pure wine exploration of the best places to visit in this eastern corner of France. Starting at Thann, south of Colmar and near EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, it casually follows the Rhine River north to Marlenheim, close to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. Hugging the western slopes and remaining in the rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains, the approximately 108-mile route flits in and out of more than 100 wine villages.
If you have been to Napa Valley, you’ve had a taste of the geography. The compact vineyard area is not much wider than Napa Valley, though a little more than two times as long. And, like San Franciscans, the French, German and Swiss use Alsace as a wine weekend getaway. This wine region, the French say, is the terre de fête, the wine-tourism hot spot. As a result, everything is geared to serious eating, amazing drinking and good times.
So gather up your frequent-flier miles and head for the stars. There are 27 Michelin-starred restaurants, and their sidekick winstubs (bistros) offer foods that pair perfectly with the local wines. Visit a couple of wineries before lunch and more, if you dare, after.
The Route des Vins celebrates its 60th year in 2013. Unlike Bordeaux, producers in Alsace open their wineries to visitors during harvest, from September to November, and most other times of the year (including weekends). Harvest and the month before Christmas are the high seasons.
The heart of the wine route is the medieval town of Colmar, from which you can make daily forays to visit the small villages that capture the essence of Alsace. While Colmar—and its distinctive red- and green-tile roofs— was mostly spared from destruction during World War II, many of the region’s villages were recreated after the war, so what appears old is not always as it seems. Stop by the Musée Bartholdi, the former family home of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi—the designer of the Statue of Liberty—which houses an array of his other works.
Colmar offers plenty of lodging options, like Hôtel Quatorze, a contemporary, 14-room boutique hotel inside a timbered shell. Located in the heart of the Old Quarter, it’s surrounded by restaurants and provides a nice counterbalance to the Medieval and Gothic exteriors that abound. Rates range from $170–$520 per night.
The Best Western Grand Hôtel Bristol is more traditional and less expensive. All of its rooms have Wi-Fi, but not all have air-conditioning. Rooms range from $146–$229. Many wineries have rooms available, but don’t expect luxury. Do expect to breakfast with the winemaker’s family.
This authentic Alsace dish transcends the average pizza. Traditionally baked in a wood oven stoked with vine cuttings, it can also be prepared in a gas or electric oven.For the dough
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole grain flour
1 cup rye flour
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
½ ounce baker’s yeast
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1¼ cup whole milk
For the topping
½ cup crème fraîche (recipe below)
½ cup fromage blanc (substitute plain yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, lightly whipped)
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
2 Vidalia or sweet onions, sliced into 1/8-inch-thick rings
7 ounces smoked bacon, cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
For the crème fraîche
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk
Combine the heavy cream and buttermilk, and stir until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature until it thickens, approximately 12–24 hours.
To make the dough: Place the flours, salt and poppy seeds in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together the baker’s yeast and butter to make a paste. Stir enough milk into the flour to give a smooth, creamy consistency.
Make a well in the center of the flour and add the yeast mixture. Then knead the dough until it is well mixed and elastic. Cover it with a towel and let it sit for about two hours, until it has doubled in volume.
As soon as the dough has risen, roll it into an ultrathin sheet, approximately 1/16-1/8-inch thick, and place it on a nonstick or lightly oiled baking tray. Create a lifted edge around the dough and let it sit for 30–45 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 500°F.
To make the topping: In a bowl, mix together the crème fraîche, fromage blanc and oil, and season with salt and pepper. Spread the cheese mixture onto the dough then evenly top with the onion rings and bacon slices.
Place the pizza in the preheated oven and cook for up to 15 minutes, or until the onions are golden and the bread edge is crisp. Once cooked, cut the pizza into the desired number of slices and serve immediately. Serves 4–6.
Alternative toppings: thin-sliced mushrooms, foie gras, herbs, spinach, sauerkraut or any other pizza topping.
Tarte Flambée dessert: Add brown sugar to the crème fraiche/fromage blanc mixture. Garnish with cooking apples and a splash of Calvados apple liqueur. Bake as instructed above.
According to Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl, the best pairing is Alsace Sylvaner or an Edelzwicker blend. Try Hugel’s 2011 Gentil (86 points, $14). The fruity apple flavors and crisp acidity will counter the rich cheese and bacon combination. A young Riesling, with all its fruity freshness, will also work. Try Gustave Lorentz’s 2010 Réserve (88 points, $24).
European Editor, Reviews wines from Portugal and France
Roger Voss covers Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire and South-West France as well as Portugal. His passion is matching food with wine, bringing the pleasures of the table to wine lovers. He has written six books on wine and food, and was previously national correspondent on wine for the London Daily Telegraph. He is based in the Bordeaux region.
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