A Trip Back In Time

A visit to Alsace promises everything from medieval architecture to vistas of vines.


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Lying in the far northeast of France, divided from Germany to the east by the Rhine River, Alsace is picturesque wine country, and relatively unknown by American visitors to France.

The vineyards are broken up by small villages, full of tall, half-timbered houses, decorated in the summer with bright, flowery window boxes. Medieval-looking signs point visitors in the direction of area wine producers, who are better prepared for tourism than most French wine producers are.

The well-marked Alsace Route des Vins runs the full length of the vineyards, a distance of 75 miles. It's designed for walking, cycling or driving, and passes through virtually every wine village, skirting the base of the Vosges mountains, with occasional detours through the narrow valleys that lead west into the mountains.

Protected from the Atlantic weather systems by the Vosges mountains, Alsace's summer weather is gorgeous. Rainfall in the region is among the lowest in France, with only 59 to 78 inches falling per year on the western side of the mountains, and only 25 inches in the vineyards themselves. It is typical to see rain clouds over the Vosges, and rare to see them over the vineyards.

Viticulturally, Alsace's two départements, or counties, are easy to remember. To the north, there is Bas-Rhin, and to the south there is Haut-Rhin. The Haut-Rhin département, which is protected by the Vosges mountains, has by far the finest vineyards and most picturesque villages. To walk the narrow streets is to step back into the Middle Ages, except that today charm and quaintness have replaced refuse and disease. Even Colmar, the département's main town, has retained its quaint districts, such as the section of canals called La Petite Venise.

This charm is, of course, carefully cultivated by the Alsatians, but it also has a lot to do with Alsace's Central European culture, evident in its gastronomy as much as it is in its wines. The Alsatian cuisine, with its emphasis on sausage, foie gras, rich stews and choucroute (the equivalent of German sauerkraute), is a blend of German heartiness and French refinement.

German and French influences predominate in Alsace, obviously, due to the region's location and its history. Alsace became part of modern France in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years' War. Before that, it had either been part of the Holy Roman Empire or part of the Frankish kingdom of the Merovingians. Alsace's history has certainly not been without troubles. Twice reoccupied by Germany (from 1870 to 1919 and from 1940 to 1945), it has been fought over as a prized borderland for centuries. Now, it is specifically French but also generally European—the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.

Alsace is the only region in France able to grow German varieties such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. But these are not German wines, they are French wines made using German varieties. The style, full-bodied and rich, is quite different from that of their German counterparts. The wonderfully aromatic varieties, the rich, intense flavors and the opulence of the late-harvest wines are unlike wines you'll find anywhere else.
You've been to Florence and the Rhône, Paris and Madrid, and want to see a different slice of Europe this summer? Alsace is the place. With its fine wines, great cuisine, history and architecture, it has pretty much everything. Oh, and if a great party is what you're after, keep in mind that every Alsatian village has its own summer wine
festival.

Alsace's Must-Visit Wine Producers
Domaine Paul Blanck
The Blanck wines are wines to age, steely and sometimes austere when young, but after five years they're full of grace. Cousins Philippe and Frédéric run this family enterprise, which spans all levels of price and quality. Great grand cru wines come from the Altenbourg and Furstentum vineyards. Located at 32 Grand'rue 68420 Kientzheim; Mon.-Sat. 8am-noon; 1:30-6pm; www.blanck.com

Domaines Schlumberger
With 340 acres of vines, Schlumberger is by far the largest domaine in Alsace. Nicolas Schlumberger acquired the land in the 19th century, in what are now the grands crus of Saering, Kessler, Kitterlé and Spiegel, as well as in other sites such as Heissenstein and Schimberg. Located at 100 rue Théodore-Deck, 68500 Guebwiller; Mon.-Fri. 8am-12:30pm; 1:30-6pm. Sat. by appointment; email: dvschlum@aol.com

Domaine Weinbach
If you want to touch history, you should go to Domaine Weinbach. Marked out since 890 by the monks of the Etival Abbey, the vineyard in the walled Clos du Capucin now belongs to Colette Faller and her two daughters, Laurence and Catherine. Some in France say Laurence Faller
is among the best white winemakers in the
world. Located at 25 route du Vin, 68240
Kaysersberg; Mon.-Sat. 9-11:30am; 2-5pm; www. domaineweinbach.com.

Léon Beyer
Founded in 1580, Léon Beyer is now run by Marc Beyer and his son, Léon. He has continued the firm's tradition of making dry wines, which he says "are designed to go with food." The hallmark wine is Comtes d'Eguisheim, which is made only in the best years. Loated at 2 rue de la Première Armée, 68420 Eguisheim; Mon. to Fri. 8am-noon; 2-5pm. Has a tasting room and shop; email:
mb@leonbeyer.fr

Hugel et Fils
Jean "Johnny" Hugel was, for many years, the very public face of Alsace around the world. Though the 17th-century firm's 13th generation has taken the reins from Johnny, the wines remain benchmarks for Alsatian wine lovers. The winery's greatest glories are the Vendanges Tardives and Séléction de Grains Nobles. Located at 3 rue de la Première Armée, 68340 Riquewihr; Mon.-Fri. 9am-noon; 2-5pm; email: info@hugel.com

JosMeyer
Jean Meyer is a great believer in making wines that pair well with food. He finds elegance, finesse and perfume rather than power are the best qualities for food-friendly wines. So don't expect blockbusters here, but find refined fruit, and a dry style of wine. Located at 76 rue Clemenceau 69820 Wintzenheim; Mon.-Fri.
10am -noon; 2-5pm. Sat. 9am-noon; email:
josmeyer@wanadoo.fr

Kuentz-Bas
Jacques Weber and Christian Bas run this small merchant that specializes in Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines. The finest of its wines come from the Pfersigberg and Eichberg grand cru vineyards. Rieslings are the great success story here—they're racy, steely wines, with a sensational pure mineral character. Located at 14 route du Vin, 68420 Husseren-les-Chateaux; Mon.-Sat. 9am-noon; 1-6pm; www.kuentz-bas.fr

Marcel Deiss
Terroir means everything to Marcel Deiss. So strong is his belief in the vineyard that he wants his wines to carry only the vineyard name, not the grape name, which goes against all the traditions of Alsace. His Rieslings from Altenberg de Bergheim and Schoenenbourg are stunners; his wines from the grand cru of Mambourg are hugely rich, and hugely expensive. Located at 15 route du Vin, 68750 Bergheim; Mon.-Sat. 8:30am-noon; 2-6pm; email: marceldeiss@ marceldeiss.com

Domaine Pierre Sparr
Sparr's Alsace wines show great style. Pierre Sparr, a qualified oenologue, makes much of his less expensive range, especially the Riesling Reserve and the Pinot Blanc. Some of his more pricey wines, like the grand cru Pinot Gris from the Mambourg vineyard, are rich, opulent and intense. Located at 2 rue de la Premiere Armee Francaise, 68240 Sigolsheim; Mon.-Fri. 8am-noon; 2-6pm; email: vins-sparr@alsace-wines.com.

René Muré, Domaine du Clos Saint-Landelin
Established in 1630 by Michel Muré. There are two names because there are two very different companies run by one family. René Muré is a négociant, purchasing grapes to make a range of wines that can be drunk young. But Muré also owns the Domaine du Clos Saint-Landelin part of the grand cru Vorbourg vineyard in Rouffach. Here things are much more special. Located at Route du Vin, 68250 Rouffach; Mon.-Fri. 9am-noon; 2-6pm; email: rene@mure.com

Trimbach
For great Riesling, Trimbach is the place to go. Clos Sainte-Hune Riesling, from a tiny 1.3-hectare vineyard, is arguably the finest Riesling in the world. It has perfume, steeliness, purity of fruit and elegance. It is also rare: Fewer than 9,000 bottles are produced. Riesling Cuvée Frédéric-Emile is nearly as good. Located at 15 route de Bergheim, 68150 Ribeauvillé; Mon.-Fri. 8am-noon; 1:30- 5:30 pm. Sat. by appointment; email: contact@
maison-trimbach.fr

Though these producers aren't open to the public, you should still keep an eye out for their excellent wines.

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht
Olivier Humbrecht works with his father, Léonard, who built up a collection of vines in some of the finest vineyards in Alsace. His wines, produced biodynamically, are extraordinary by any standard. The greatest are the Vendanges Tardives Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss
Marc Kreydenweiss's winery sits beside the fast-flowing River Andlau. From his cellar, he can see the Kastelberg grand cru vineyard, where he has part of his 12 hectares, which he works biodynamically. The best of his production is his Rieslings.

Alsace's Must-see Villages
Barr has twisting, cobbled streets and a lack of tourists, both of which make it one of the most genuine of Alsace's wine villages. The one place to visit is La Folie Marco, an 18th-century house that contains a museum of furniture.

Bergheim, like Barr, has relatively few tourists. Its city gates, which lead into narrow streets, are lined with good local restaurants.

Dambach-la-Ville, with its fortified gateways, preserves much of its medieval appearance. Famed for its Rieslings, the local legend suggests that a bear that enjoyed eating wild grapes showed the locals where to plant their vines.

Eguisheim is the most perfect of the wine villages, with medieval streets circling around the central square. In the summer, pots of geraniums on the second floors of the houses almost touch across the narrow streets.

Kaysersberg is famed as the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer. It is a fine, timbered Alsace village tucked into a fold in the mountains.

Obernai is one of the oldest towns in Alsace, founded in the second century A.D. It retains all its fortifications, and has street after street of medieval houses. Just outside is the Mont Sainte-Odile, Alsace's holy mountain named after the local saint, who built two convents here.

Riquewihr is a classic, picture-book village. It's overrun by tourists in the summer, but still manages to keep its dignity intact. Its setting, surrounded by vineyard slopes, and its wine shops make it worth a visit.

Séléstat is a more of a city than a village, it's full of good shops and restaurants. Ste. Foy and St. Georges churches are worth visting.

Turckheim is famous for its night watchman, who still does rounds in this fortified village. It also has an excellent wine co-op that sells wine from its shop.

Colmar is not strictly a wine village, but a major city. But this capital of the southern half of Alsace is a must for any visitor. It has preserved many of its ancient streets in a district called La Petite Venise bisected by canals. It also has great art galleries and churches.

FOR MORE ON ALSACE, CHECK OUT THIS MONTH'S WINE ENTHUSIAST.

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