A Visit to Alsace – Always Too Short

alsace-1Last week I missed writing Wine of the Week last week because I was visiting the Alsace region in North-Eastern France. So rather than a wine review this week, I would like to provide you with my experience of the towns and wineries I was able to visit over the weekend. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting this area, I hope to be able to give you a feeling for the region. For those who have visited the region, I hope it brings back good memories.

Getting to this part of north-eastern France is a bit of a commitment: from Zurich it is a 2 hour drive, Frankfurt a 3 hour drive, from Paris, Lyon or Brussels a 4 hour drive, from Milan with the Alps in the way it is 5 hours, from Berlin or Amsterdam it is 6 or more hours. Apart from Strasbourg, which is the major city in the north of the Alsace region, the next closest city is Basel, Switzerland, however you really need a car (or if you are very fit a mountain bike) to get around to the small towns dotted in the strip of land between the Vosges mountains and the river Rhine.

The wine
Even though the town names have a Germanic influence, the wine produced here are most definitely French. Although there has been a bit of a shift from the dry, crisp white wines from the Riesling, Pinot Gris (sometimes referred to as Tokai), Muscat and Gerwurtstraminer grapes, the traditional style remains with many producers who get every last drop of sugar out of the wine. Across the border in Germany they use the same grapes, but their wines are sweeter and less acidic simply from the wine making techniques employed.

To give you an idea of the different varieties, here is a short description of each:

Clear, delicate and crisp and very easy to drink. The dry wines go well with simply cooked fish and the sweeter ones with spicy Asian food.

This is drier and slightly more complex than the Riesling, matches perfectly with the asparagus which is a speciality of the region between April and June.

Pinot Gris
More complex than the other grape varieties, it is also traditionally dry to finish, however can match richer meals such as pork or duck.

No matter how many times I try this wine, it always surprises me. It has a very sweet floral and fruity smell and first taste but ends very dry and crisp, almost like smelling then eating lavender, if you can picture that. I like to drink this with aromatic Thai, Vietnamese, or even some Indian chicken or fish dishes.

The towns
Instead of trying to see everything in a couple of days, I decided to visit 3 towns between Strasbourg and Colmar. The towns I chose were Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Ribeauville.

The traditional houses look like illustrations from a fairytale. The small town is wrapped around La Weisse river as it rushes down to the Rhin. It can be explored in a short amount of time, unless you get drawn into the shops, cafes, or, in my case, the wine producers that are scattered around the town. The best I sampled there was Salzmann-Thomann which is right in the centre of the town.

A short drive through the vines from Kaysersberg is the slightly larger town on Riquewihr. The cobbled streets, colourful clock tower and variety of buildings makes this a great stop for an explore and a bit to eat with many great restaurants to chose from. It is also the home of many winer producers.

Best wine producer here was F.E. Hugel, there are quite a few others however this was the most tradition producer I sampled in the entire region. It is very hard to miss as it is right in the centre of the main street leading up to the clock tower.

The largest of the towns of the three, however it has not lost any of its charm. The main street is filled with Alsatian delicacies. You can make your way all the way up to the St Ulrich Chateau if you are up for a hike up a very steep hill. Otherwise you can explore the lanes and squares of the town, or just sit at a café and watch the stream of people move by.
There are many great wine producers here, most are on the main street. Here are some of the best I was able to sample:

Robert Faller & Fils
J.A.T Gerber-Metz – Known as Metz Freres
Trimbach – just away from the main street but well worth the short walk

Alsatian food
The region has many traditional dishes, it is near impossible to try all of them. The traditional ingredients are duck, goose, pork, fresh water fish and a variety of vegetables that grow in the rich flood plain of the Rhine. There are many restaurants from Michelin stars ones to small cafes and brasseries. All of them good value for the quality of food you receive.

Some of the meals I tried were;
Pork and sauerkraut – sounds simple, but with 2 different sausages and 2 different cuts of pork it is a wonderful mixture of taste and texture.
Pâtes with Munster cheese – which is very similar to a gnocchi dish with rich local cheese.
Onion tart – again a simple dish, but the sweet onions with egg and cream in a wonderful pastry is a must have as an entree or a snack for lunch.
Tarte flambée – these are similar to pizza, but very thin crust, lots of onions, bacon, cream and cheese and often with the local Munster cheese.

All of these foods, unsurprisingly, go perfectly with the various wines of the region.

The region is popular with tourists, however doesn’t feel overrun like the Champagne or Bordeaux regions. It is well worth a visit, even if you are not a fan of the wine styles, your will find something you like especially with the food and scenery in the region.


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