A Guide to Visiting Alsace
France's oldest wine route is also one of the world's best.
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.
In Colmar, Julien Binz is a driving force on the culinary scene, and not only for the Michelin star he polishes at Le Rendez-Vous de Chasse in the Grand Hôtel Bristol. His journal is a reference for what’s cooking in Alsace. Binz gives popular culinary lessons with a four-course menu (without drinks) for $152 per person.
Visit Jean-Yves Schillinger’s JY’S on the Petite Venise canal in the Old Quarter. His courses are small, but perfectly formed. Schillinger is slated to create the menu and open Noir, a new Midtown Manhattan restaurant by George Iordanou— the owner of New York City’s Taj and One51—this summer. Entrées from $49–$104.
Before lunch or dinner, take a quick trip out to Meyer Fonné. François Meyer and his son, Félix, run this family domaine in the village of Katzenthal, six miles from downtown Colmar.
Make an appointment to taste and visit the cellar. While there, see the traditional barrels used for vinification, which give extra richness to the wine. Their best wines are the Riesling and Gewurztraminer from the Kaefferkopf Grand Cru.
If you’re looking for value wines for a Sunday picnic lunch, the spacious modern shop and tasting room of the Cave Vinicole de Turckheim is the place to go. It’s five miles outside Colmar and open daily. You can also sample wines from the Hengst and Brand grand crus, and taste through the range of sparkling wines that fall under the Crémant d’Alsace appellation.
Make Kaysersberg your Day Two destination—or just stay there. Chambard is a boutique hotel, relaxing spa, Michelin-starred restaurant and great winstub all in one. Chef Olivier Nasti works wonders in both the winstub and the restaurant. Rooms from $194–$391, with Michelin meal packages.
Just walk from Chambard to Domaine Weinbach. On the edge of the village, the Faller family—mother Colette and daughters Catherine and Laurence—tend to the ancient Clos des Capucins, a site first mentioned in 890. All the grape varieties shine under winemaker Laurence’s care, but at the top are the Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru and Gewurztraminer Furstentum Grand Cru. Call for an appointment.
Alternatively, visit Ammerschwihr, two miles from Kaysersberg. Here Jean-Baptiste Adam’s modern tasting room is open every day. Adam traces his family-winemaking history back to 1614. He makes a specialty of Crémant d’Alsace, as well as Riesling from his biodynamic portion of the Kaefferkopf.
The ever-expanding Riquewihr empire of star chef Jean-Luc Brendel includes La Table du Gourmet restaurant and winstub, designer guest rooms, luxury apartments and a country cottage outside the village. Rooms (including the cottage) range from $142–$642.
Opposite Brendel is Hugel et Fils’s friendly tasting room in the family’s historic winery and home in the heart of Riquewihr. A famous name in Alsace, the Hugel family was the driving force behind the formalization of the vendanges tardives and sélection de grains nobles wine categories in 1984. The Gewurztraminers—in both of these styles—remain benchmarks. Visits and sales are available from Easter to Christmas, or by appointment.
From Hugel, it’s a five-minute walk to the Château de Riquewihr, located just inside the fortified city wall (you’ll see it on your drive through the city gate). Here, Dopff & Irion makes good value, accessible wines. The best come from the Schoenenbourg Grand Cru, while the Domaine du Château range is true to each grape variety. Tastings are available in the wine shop of the château daily.
Is it right to save the best for last? The only three-star restaurant on the route is the fantastic L’Auberge de l’Ill in Illhaeusern. It’s a bit farther north of Colmar, about 11 miles, but an easy drive. The setting on a river is worth making this a lunch destination. The service and food, regardless of the time, is impeccable, yet not stiff. L’Auberge de l’Ill has a small boutique hotel called Hôtel des Berges that is reputed to be as perfect as the restaurant.
There’s no better lead-in to lunch at L’Auberge than a visit to one of the best winemakers in the region, Jean-Michel Deiss. His Domaine Marcel Deiss wines are the exception to the rules in Alsace.
The wines are not labeled by variety, but by the vineyard name, and are often blends from the old vines in his vineyards. Working biodynamically, his wines are intense and truly exceptional. Best are the Mambourg and Schoenenbourg grand crus. The Bergheim sales shop, five miles from L’Auberge de l’Ill, is open daily, but an appointment is necessary to taste the wines.
Six miles from Illhaeusern in Ribeauvillé, visit Trimbach, where the family produces Clos Ste Hune Riesling, one of the legendary wines of Alsace. If you are lucky enough to taste it with Hubert Trimbach, you get the true sense of how superb Alsace Riesling can be. The Trimbach winery is open weekdays, with Saturday visits only possible by appointment.
If, like me, you see an itinerary as a framework for travel and tasting detours, then Alsace is packed with much more to do. Distillery visits (Alsace is famous for its fruit liqueurs) and breweries (the region is number one in France for beer production) aside, Alsace is home to Munster cheese, sauerkraut, goose foie gras, artisan jam, gingerbread and even a gourmet museum dedicated to chocolate. For dessert, visit the artisan bakeries that dot the streets of every Alsace village.
So is there any reason to hesitate visiting Alsace? Only one: So much wine, so much food, so much to see—and so little time.
Making Sense of Alsace Wines
There are seven main grape varieties—all white but one—that you’ll find identified on Alsace wine labels. This is the order in which most wine tastings in Alsace are set up.
Pinot Blanc is soft and fruity, with apple and pear flavors. It is the entry-level wine, the most affordable and most accessible. Serve as an apéritif.
Sylvaner is light and floral in the apéritif style. It’s not widely available in the United States, so it’s worth tasting with the local, stinky Munster cheese.
Riesling is steely and minerally (on a German or Austrian level), yet with an extra layer of fruity richness that makes it delicious when young. But Riesling can age as well, sometimes for decades. Partner it with white fish and shellfish, creamy cheeses and pork or salami.
Muscat is aromatic and delicate. It uniquely smells and tastes like grapes. Muscat from Alsace is generally dry and makes a great partner with the most difficult wine foods like asparagus and artichokes.
Despite being made from the same grape variety, Pinot Gris from Alsace is completely different from Italian Pinot Grigio. It’s rich, full bodied, smoky and opulent. This wine is sometimes not quite dry, with peach and apricot notes. Serve with pork dishes, risotto, mushrooms, pâtés or even roasted red meat.
Gewurztraminer is an Alsace specialty. Roses and spices are part of the aroma profile along with passion fruit and mango. The signature lychee character is unmistakable. Gewurztraminers are often sweeter wines than Rieslings, making them fine partners for spicy Asian dishes.
The only red grape in the bunch, Pinot Noir is mostly used for red wine and as part of the blend of sparkling Crémant d’Alsace. As a red wine, it’s a lighter style than Burgundy. Producers tend to age their red Pinot Noirs in wood, not always successfully. Partner with white meats and ham dishes.
Crémant d’Alsace is the region’s answer to Champagne. Crémant d’Alsace is dry, creamy textured, fruity and often represents great value.
Vendanges tardives wines are made from late-harvested grapes, resulting in superrich and concentrated wines that aren’t always very sweet.
Sélection de Grains Nobles wines are made from botrytized grapes, with all the attendant richness, acidity and sweetness. Outside desserts, pair them with foie gras (or any liver paté).
By Air: Aéroport International Strasbourg (SXB) and EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg (BSL, MLH, EAP) link with all the international European hubs.
By High-Speed Train: From Paris, Frankfurt and central and southern Europe.
By Car: The A4 links Strasbourg to Champagne and to Paris. The A35 links Strasbourg to Colmar and Switzerland. Across the Rhine River, the German autobahn links to Frankfurt and elsewhere. From July 1, 2012, France required that all cars are equipped with disposable breathalyzer kits. Car-rental companies supply kits. The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving in France is 0.05%.
Alsace Wine FAQ
What is a French wine region doing producing Germanic varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer?
Alsace, once part of the German Holy Roman Empire, has oscillated between post-Revolution France and Germany for centuries. Only since the end of World War II has it definitively been part of France. Germanic grapes were planted in Alsace, which is on the west bank of the Rhine River. And we should be thankful. Those grapes thrive in Alsace’s dry climate, producing wines that are complex at the high end and deliciously drinkable at the less-expensive end. Of all the white wines in the world, Alsace wines are among the most reliable year in and year out.
Are the wines sweet or dry?
Most Alsace wines are dry or dryish, especially those made from Riesling or Pinot Blanc. Wines from Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer can be sweeter. When a producer doesn’t indicate sugar levels on the label, it can be a challenge to know until the bottle is opened. Thankfully, producers have realized the confusion and have started to identify the sweetness levels of many wines.
What can I expect when visiting wineries?
Most wineries are small and family owned, because the actual vineyards are small plots. Expect to taste at least seven different wines, or limit yourself to tasting the same variety—such as Gewurztraminer—on all your visits. Many wineries have tasting rooms, and tastings are typically free. If there is a particular winery on your bucket list, make an appointment. Even calling the winery the day before helps the family prepare for your visit.
Traditional Alsace Tarte Flambée
Courtesy chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl, Restaurant La Taverne Alsacienne, Ingersheim, France
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).