Alsace

extract from Dominic’s France: the cool climate

Download the book as a PDFOctober & November 2006

A magical land

Getting there

What’s that funny language?

Strasbourg

Staying in Strasbourg

Weather, climate and when to visit

War and wine: a turbulent history

Rags to recovery

Alsace today

Grape varieties, terroir and styles of wine

Wine & food

Driving, cycling or walking

A magical land

In the famous words of Harry Lime in the film The Third Man: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” 

Just over the border from Switzerland, in Alsace, centuries of Franco-Germanic fighting, stark religious and political divides, and an insatiable love of good food and wine, gave birth to something rather more inspiring. 

Alsace locationAnd Alsace is more than just a producer of great wines. It is a fairytale land of medieval-Gothic towns and villages, of mountains and castles, chic restaurants and cosy country inns. The Alsatians are totally unique. “Reserved at first, but warm and genuine when you get to know them” is said of many peoples, but nowhere is this truer than in Alsace. There is a real spirituality about the Alsatian character, and this is a tangible force in the region’s winemaking. Whilst an earthy Burgundian vigneron might talk about power, balance and structure in his wines, the Alsatian will tell fantastic stories about how they make him feel. 

Alsace is the French region best adapted to wine tourism, which overlaps seamlessly with its many other attractions. The tourist trade in Alsace is an important factor in its wine sales, and even the most prestigious estates are happy to receive visitors. 

Alsace is a young wine appellation that many foreign markets still find confusing. The trade bodies supposed to promote Alsace are seemingly oblivious to the irony in the promotional slogan “Alsace, France’s best-kept secret”. But the result is that Alsace wines are still largely to be discovered. 

The wine route begins north of my proposed itinerary in Marlenheim, in the Bas-Rhin, or Lower Rhine, département. It continues south to the vertiginous vineyards above Thann in the south of the Haut-Rhin, or Upper Rhine. I have concentrated on the heart of Alsace, that stretch where the highest concentration of great winemakers and terroirs are to be found.

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What’s that funny language?

Most young Alsatians speak French, with a charming singsong local accent. “It’s chic to speak French,” is what schools have taught since the War (“and if you don’t, you may be punished!”). But the older generation still widely speaks Alsatian, a dialect of German. 

In the 1940s, many Alsatians would have struggled to form a sentence in French, but understood perfectly the orders barked by their Nazi occupiers. Nothing could surprise a population that changed nationalities five times between 1871 and 1945!

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Getting there

My advice is to begin a tour of Alsace in the Bas-Rhin, before making the journey south to the more famous villages around Colmar. The place to start is the town of Obernai, close to Strasbourg. If flying to Bâle-Mulhouse airport to the south, take the train directly north to the region’s capital. 

Rail links are very good, and Strasbourg will have a high-speed TGV link from Paris by the time of publication. If arriving by ferry, simply pick up the A26 from Calais to Reims (see Champagne chapter), then the A4 to Strasbourg.

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Strasbourg

The region’s capital is only loosely linked with its wine production, although it is a great centre of gastronomy. Emile Jung’s double-Michelin-starred Restaurant Au Crocodile is one of the most famous in France, and the one all Alsatian chefs want on their CVs.

10, rue de l’Outre. Tel. 03 88 32 13 02

But Strasbourg has a good selection of less expensive restaurants and winstubs. Try La Maison des Tanneurs “the home of choucroute” on the rue du Bain-aux-Plantes, in the pretty Petite France district. Tel. 03 88 32 79 70. And for an uncompromisingly rustic introduction to Alsace, book a place at S’Muensterstuewel on Place du Marché aux Cochons de Lait. Tel. 03 88 32 17 63. This restaurant is named after and within a stone’s throw of Strasbourg’s must-visit attraction, the Cathedral. 

Strasbourg’s vinous wonder is the Hospices Universitaires de Strasbourg. Founded in 1395, the Hospices was until the War an important vineyard owner and merchant house. After 1945, the Hospices continued to provide aid for the sick, but was gradually forced to sell off its vineyards; its viticultural activities ceasing completely in the early nineteen nineties. 

In the last years of the same decade, a handful of vignerons and wine lovers revived the Hospices’ neglected treasures, and the public can now visit its extensive vaulted cellars, and marvel at ancient wine presses and vintages in cask dating from 1472. 1, place de l’Hôpital (near quai St-Nicholas). Tel. 03 88 11 64 50.

Strasbourg has no winemakers, but Le Vinophile, just around the corner from the Modern and Contemporary Arts Museum (see below), is one of Alsace’s best wine shops. Its owner, Michel Le Gris, only sells the finest of the region’s organic wines. 10, rue d’Obernai. Tel. 03 88 22 74 06.

Strasbourg is an important brewing city, and you can visit the old Kronenbourg brewery in route d’Oberhausbergen, although production has now moved to nearby Obernai. Tel. 03 88 27 41 59

Otherwise, microbrewery La Lanterne makes its own beer in the old city centre.

5, rue de la Lanterne. Tel 03 88 32 10 10.

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Staying in Strasbourg

Strasbourg’s most beautiful and luxurious hotel, Château de l’Ile****, is on the way out of the city towards Obernai, in Ostwald (see below). Rooms cost at least €180. 4, quai Heydt, Ostwald. Tel. 03 88 66 85 00.

For mere mortals, Maison Rouge*** is a comfortable place, perfectly situated off Place Kléber in the city centre. Expect to pay upwards of €80. 4, rue des Francs-Bourgeois Tel. 03 88 32 08 60.

Close to the Hospices Universities de Strasbourg is the charming and well-priced (€45-100) Hôtel Au Cerf d’Or** 6, place de l’Hôpital. Tel. 03 88 36 20 05.

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Weather, climate and when to visit

Alsace’s climate is one of the most unusual and extreme in France. At between 47.5º and 49º North, these latitudes should be the outer limits of quality wine production, but Alsace benefits instead from a unique microclimate, creating perfect conditions for the vine. 

The Vosges mountains exert the biggest influence on Alsace’s weather. Rising to an altitude of 1424 metres, they dramatically reduce the Atlantic’s moderating influence, giving a harsh continental climate. Summers in Alsace are hot, with cool nights, allowing ripeness to be achieved whilst preserving fresh flavours and acidity in the grapes. 

Long, mild autumns ensure slow ripening, adding complexity to the grapes’ flavours. Cold nighttime mists spill down from the Vosges, and are burned off by the sun’s rays the following morning, allowing the development of botrytis, or ‘noble rot’, that concentrates flavour, acidity and sugar in the late harvest wines. But when winter comes it hits hard, and temperatures are frequently the lowest in France. 

A significant feature of Alsace’s climate is its extremely low rainfall. The Vosges create a barrier for the eastbound rain clouds, which drench their summits with 2000 mm of precipitation per year, leaving Colmar with only 550 mm. This makes the city France’s driest after Perpignan. 

But 2006 surprised everyone. Alsace had suffered the heat of July followed by cold in August. September had been warm but humid, and when the torrential late September and early October rains came, less noble forms of rot took hold in the vineyards. This was when I arrived in Alsace, and I found winemakers with a lot on their minds. The harvest in Alsace often lasts into December, but this was a risk no one would take in 2006. The grapes were sufficiently ripe for early picking, and even for the production of ‘late harvest’ wines, but this would be a very early late harvest.

The harvest is a great time to be in Alsace, when villages are hives of activity. Summer is the time for village festivities, and spring is when to beat the tourist coaches. In the last 10 years, the Alsace tourist board has plugged the final hole in the region’s perennial popularity, by creating the Marchés de Noël, or Christmas Markets, which animate many towns and villages from the end of November.

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War and wine: a turbulent history

The history of winemaking in Alsace predates the Romans. Viticulture was practised throughout the Middle Ages, but Alsace’s real period of prosperity began in the 16th century. However, although France emerged victorious from her Thirty Years War with Germany in 1648, this period had witnessed the near total destruction of the Alsatian vineyard. 

Very little changed until after the French Revolution. Then with the onset of the 19th century, an uncontrolled frenzy of replanting began. Inferior vine varieties such as the productive Kniperlé were grown on easily cultivated soils in the fertile plains; the best hillside vineyards at the foot of the Vosges were left abandoned. Wines were watered down and sugar was added to boost alcohol levels, as the vineyards’ owners tried to maximise quantity at the expense of quality. 

More disastrous still was the introduction of foreign, notably American, vines towards the end of the 19th century. These plants brought with them diseases such as Oïdium (powdery mildew) and the Phylloxera louse, which would devastate Europe’s vineyards. When Germany re-annexed Alsace in 1871, the situation worsened as the invading power relegated Alsace to the production of reliable bulk wine for the domestic market, to protect Germany’s own fine winemakers from undesirable competition! 

Alsace became French again in 1919, and the consequences of the German policy became starkly apparent. Starved of the markets along the Rhine River, for which its vineyards had been planted, Alsace was suddenly forced to compete with the wine regions of France, at a considerable disadvantage.

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Rags to recovery

After the ravages of the Second World War, Alsace began to re-emerge as a producer of world-class wines. The region lacked the famous names of the Bordeaux châteaux, and its ancient monastic vineyard sites were saddled with obscure Germanic names. The solution was the birth of the single ‘varietal’ wine; a marketing initiative that has since been copied the world over. 

Instrumental in the development of Alsace wines was a handful of enterprising growers who, towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, began bottling and branding their own wines and those of neighbouring farmers. Families such as the Trimbachs, the Beyers and the Hugels emerged at the vanguard of a developing wine appellation. In 1895, the Cave de Ribeauvillé became France’s first co-operative wine cellar, followed by others who today count among Alsace’s most respected winemakers. 

1945 saw the creation of the official blueprint for Alsace’s accession to appellation contrôlée status, which it finally received in 1962.

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Alsace today

Alsace is a wine appellation still in its infancy, and one that is fast evolving to meet its enormous potential. Two thirds of Alsace’s production is sold in France, where it accounts for an incredible 40% of quality white wine sales. The region’s often family-run merchant houses bottle more than 40% of Alsace wines and 18 strong cooperative cellars count for almost as much again. The remainder is produced and sold by the independent growers. 

As the system creaks under opposing pressures from influential growers and powerful merchant houses, the next ten years is likely to see radical changes in the rules. This could bring, for example, a new list of Premier Cru as well as Grand Cru vineyards, which would make appellation Alsace more like that in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.

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Grape varieties, terroir and styles of wine

The majority of Alsace wines are white and either dry or off-dry in style, but beyond this, the variety is enormous. A typical winemaker has three fairly distinct ranges of wines, breaking down roughly as follows: 

1. The fruit-driven wines 

These are the entry-level blends, made from single grape varieties and vinified with no wood contact to preserve the grape’s character. Alsace is unique in France in its focus on grape varieties in the production of appellation contrôlée wines. 

There are 11 grape varieties, or cépages, permitted in Alsace. The first is the Chasselas, a fairly bland grape often used as a base for the region’s basic blends. Called Edelzwickers, or “noble blends”, these rarely live up to their namesake. 

Next is the much-maligned Sylvaner, capable of producing wines with great freshness and finesse if grown on the right soils and with controlled yields. You could be forgiven for some confusion over the Pinot Blanc. Also known as the Klevner or Clevner, this is a non-aromatic, full-bodied variety with its origins in Burgundy. It is often blended with the flavoursome Auxerrois, although this is not always mentioned on the label.

 Also of Burgundian origin is the Pinot Gris, known as Pinot Beurot in the Côte d’Or. This grape was traditionally called the “Tokay d’Alsace” since, according to legend, it was brought to the region by Marshall Lazare de Schwendi in 1565, following his defeat of the Turks in Hungary. Modern studies have disproved the Magyar link, and European law now forbids the use of the word “Tokay” on Alsatian bottles. The wines are full-bodied and mineral, developing savoury aromas and an opulent mouth-feel. 

Muscat is the first of the aromatic varieties, and generally makes a light dry, grape-scented wine. In Alsace there are two distinct but related varieties. The Muscat d’Alsace is identical to the Muscat à Petits Grains found in the south of France, and of Oriental origins. The Muscat Ottonel is an earlier-ripening more recent crossbreed. 

Most people remember their first taste of the floral, exotic and sometimes spicy Gewurztraminer. Alsace’s most famous and unusual grape, the “Gewurz” (meaning “spice”) was imported from Italy’s South Tyrol at the end of the 19th century, and gradually supplanted its less aromatic cousin the Traminer. This latter is now known as the Klevener de Heiligenstein, now only grown around the commune of Heiligenstein in the Bas-Rhin. The pressed skins of Gewurztraminer grapes are distilled into Alsace’s most popular spirit, the aromatic but fiery Marc de Gewurztraminer. 

The king of Alsace grapes is the Riesling, which now covers more vineyard area than any other variety. Imported from Germany during the Middle Ages, the Riesling benefits from the long Alsatian autumns, achieving incredible levels of ripeness and aromatic complexity, whilst maintaining its fresh, steely acidity. Most Rieslings have at least some ageing potential, and the best examples are amongst the world’s longest-lived white wines. 

Often overlooked by Alsace’s marketing campaigns is the 9% of its vineyard planted with the red Pinot Noir. This was traditionally used to make rosés and light red wines, but in warm vintages many producers make serious, ageworthy red Pinot Noirs that compare well with good burgundies. 

The last grape is the ubiquitous Chardonnay. Generally blended with Pinot Blanc and other grapes, this is an increasingly important ingredient in the region’s excellent traditional method sparkling wines, or Crémants d’Alsace.

2. The terroir wines 

Just as Alsace has been torn politically between warring nations, its geology has been formed by subterranean clashes, resulting in France’s most complex terroir. The stony lower slopes of the Vosges are where the finest wines are grown, at an altitude of between 150 and 350 metres. But here it is impossible to generalise about soil type. Granite, sandstone, limestone, clay, volcanic schist and dozens of subdivisions of each can exist within a single commune. Add to which an appellation system in its infancy, and the rebelliousness of the Alsatian spirit, and you are left with... arguments. 

As in Burgundy, Alsace’s best vineyard sites have been recognised since the Middle Ages, when many of them belonged to powerful religious houses. But it was only in 1975 that the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (I.N.A.O.) confirmed a list of vineyards that could be called Grand Cru. These are the terroirs that transcend and even overpower the character of grape variety, producing wines with uniquely complex and individual flavours that often need at least five years to show their potential. 

There are 50 Grand Cru vineyards, but their exact boundaries are the subject of many disputes. Three of the biggest merchant houses, Trimbach, Hugel and Léon Beyer, have boycotted the Grand Cru appellation, arguing that their own parcels or “clos” within larger Grand Cru are superior to the rest of the vineyard. 

A Grand Cru wine must be made from one of the four “noble” grape varieties of Alsace: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Unsurprisingly, not all winemakers are happy with this, but the saga doesn’t end there. Vineyards have particular affinities for certain grape varieties, but if a site favours more than one of these, then why not create a Grand Cru blend? This is forbidden by regulations, but hasn’t stopped iconoclasts like Jean-Michel Deiss from creating field blends in all of his Grands Crus vineyards; never mind the rules. 

3. Late-harvested and super-sweet wines 

Sweet wines are made from many grape varieties, but to be called either Vendanges Tardives or Sélection des Grains Nobles, they must be made from one of the four “noble varieties” (see above), and this has caused inevitable fuss.

 Vendanges Tardives are late-harvested wines, made from overripe and shrivelled grapes, or ones that have benefited from ‘noble rot’. The authorities impose strict controls on the picking of these grapes, which must contain a minimum level of natural sugar, or potential alcohol. In practice, winemakers produce Vendanges Tardives in most years when disaster does not strike. It is forbidden to enrich the must with added sugar (chaptalization) prior to fermentation. 

Much rarer is Sélection des Grains Nobles, made from individually selected ‘nobly rotten’ grapes. The same strict controls are applied as for Vendanges Tardives, but the grapes’ sugar content must be higher still. The production of this style requires perfect conditions, and waiting for these involves risk, so a producer might only make Sélection des Grains Nobles once in a decade.

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Wine & food

Alsace has a rich, hearty culinary tradition in which country recipes merge effortlessly with modern haute cuisine. Even the best-respected chefs are not afraid to add a touche de terroir to their cooking. Alsace has a higher concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants than any other French region, but more numerous still are the cosy winstubs (or wistubs in the Haut-Rhin), created by Alsace’s winemakers following the War as a way of selling their wines with simple country food. 

The Alsatian table has undergone something of a revolution in the last ten years. Young cooks are keen to experiment with international flavours, using exotic herbs and spices which have a natural affinity for the region’s aromatic wines. The presentation of traditional Alsatian cuisine is also being reinvented. Chef Olivier Nasti in Kaysersberg, for example, has created a sushi-bar-cum-night-club based around the Alsatian tarte flammée. 

The tarte flammée, or flammekueche in Alsatian dialect, is like a thin crust pizza, topped with crème fraîche and flamed in a wood-burning stove. Bakers traditionally made these with their spare dough, throwing on onions and bacon, or whatever else there might be to hand.

The pig is an important animal in the Alsatian kitchen, and it is with ham, pig’s knuckle, and pork sausages that its most famous speciality, choucroute, is made. Here there is no escaping the Alsatian translation: this is sauerkraut, although in Alsace it is somehow infused with enough French gastronomic brilliance to make it delicious. Choucroute was born of the need to preserve cabbage through the long, cold Alsatian winter. It is chopped, soaked and then cooked in white wine, juniper berries, black pepper, salt, cloves, crushed garlic and sometimes cumin seed. Choucroute is also used as a bed on which to serve pikeperch and other river fish in creamy sauces. These dishes are wonderful when served with a glass of dry Sylvaner or Riesling. 

Every part of the pig is used in rustic recipes such as presskopf, or pressed pork brawn, and baeckaoffa, the Alsatian hotpot made from alternate layers of meat seasoned in wine, and potato mixed with onion.

Alsace has a large Jewish population, using poultry as an alternative to pork meat. The goose, and later the duck, have been essential for the production of foie gras, which only became common in its now more famous home, the Périgord, during the Second World War, when many of Alsace’s Jews fled south to escape the German army. Foie gras is homemade in the best restaurants, and goes very well with Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer in their sweeter incarnations. 

Despite arcane hunting laws in Alsace, game is abundant in its forests, so you will find delicious wild venison, pheasant, hare and boar on autumn menus. These marry well with more powerful red Pinot Noirs. 

An abundance of fruit trees grow the apples and plums (quetsch) that go into making delicious tarts and cheesecakes. Alsace’s most famous dessert is kougelhopf. Translating as “rising dough”, this is mixed with sultanas and a glass of quetsch spirit, before being topped with almonds and put in the oven. Often served partly as an ice cream, this marries well with either Gewurztraminer or crémant d’Alsace. Kougelhopf is also made as a delicious savoury snack, with bacon and nuts. 

Soft, pungent cheeses are made on the farms west of the wine route. The best known of these is the appellation controlled Munster, originally produced in the town’s Benedictine abbey. Here again, Gewurztraminer is the vinous accompaniment. The farms that produce these cheeses often double up as country inns, or fermes auberges.

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Driving, cycling or walking

Each estate in Alsace produces a very large selection of wines. Even those vignerons with UK importers are unlikely to export more than a few of their labels, so arriving in your own car is the ideal way to take home your favourites. 

However, with its excellent air and rail connections, Alsace is the perfect place to plan a cycle tour. Most of the wine route offers a choice between the flat land beneath the vineyards, the gently rolling slopes through the villages, and the more challenging routes into the Vosges. If cycle tourism is most developed in the Loire, then it is best organised in Alsace. The existing cycle paths are generally well signposted, although they haven’t all been planned with wine travel in mind. Furthermore, the railway line runs the entire length of the wine route and all trains carry bikes.

 Created in the 18th century, the Club Vosgien is Europe’s oldest hiking club. It was formed at the same time as the Alsatian plain was linked to the Vosges by a rural rail network, allowing the region’s manufacturing workers to take short breaks in the mountains. The fermes auberges sprung up around the same time to satisfy their appetites (see above). 

Less challenging are the vineyard walks in many Alsatian wine villages. Although explanations tend to be in French and German, the paths are well indicated, and further information is always available in local tourist offices, which themselves organise guided vineyard walks at set times in July and August.

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