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
|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
Hugel et Fils
René Muré, Domaine du Clos Saint-Landelin
Though these producers aren’t open to the public, you should still keep an eye out for their excellent wines.
Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss
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.