Picturesque villages are dotted along the wine route of Alsace, which winds its way along the eastern foothills of the Vosges Mountains in the north-east of France. Along the 170 kilometre route, from Marlenheim in the north to Thann in the south, church steeples rise above the hodgepodge of houses that have dark ash-brown, burnt-orange, or salmon-coloured roofs. Storks can be spotted in large nests on the roofs and chimneys and flying over the undulating hills of the countryside. When I visited, in the summer, the countryside looked like a patchwork quilt of shades of green, since leafy vineyards and plantings of cabbage define the region.
As I remember Alsace, there was a certain childlike magic in the air. When the sun was shining, the narrow roads decorated with lamps and blush-pink and white flowers had a fairytale-like charm; when angelic droplets of rain floated down from the grey clouds to fall on my nose, the view to the Black Forest was enchanting.
Perhaps Alsace appeared magical to me because it was different from anything I had known: the sounds of the Alsatian language were unfamiliar, and the half-wood houses and cozy winstubs (the old wine rooms that serve Alsatian food and wine) were novel, since they were built for the cold Alsatian winters.
Although I felt like I had entered a magical, fantasy world while I was in Alsace, I was only 2 hours or so from Paris on the fast train, and only a short drive from the city of Strasbourg, which is close to the German border. Since Alsace was torn between France and Germany in the many Franco-German wars, the wines and the food have cultural influences from both France and Germany.
The bottles for still wine in Alsace, called flûtes d’Alsace, are tall and slender, like those from the Mosel in Germany, and the wine labels display the grape variety, which is not common in France. In fact, one of the most loved grape varieties in Alsace, Riesling, is German in origin. There are, of course, French grape varieties grown in the region, such as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Due to its cool, continental climate, Alsace is a white wine drinker’s paradise, with its elegant, rich, and spicy white wines. The region does, however, produce a light fruity red wine made from Pinot Noir so that local consumers can select something other than white wine—and of course, beer—to drink.
In Klipfel’s tasting room, I sat at a wooden table where I tasted a dry Riesling with citrus and floral character, a rich, textured Pinot Gris with mushroom and lemon notes on the finish, and a Gewurztraminer with lychee, mango and rose on the nose and lychee, Turkish delight, and spices on the palate.
I also tasted the vendange tardive, late harvest, Riesling, which was produced by grapes picked several weeks after the start of harvest, and its concentrated flavours were delicious. In sum, the white wines I tried in the region were paradisaque, heavenly, to me, and I felt as though I was right where I needed to be. It was as though the powers of the wine word had conspired so that I would visit Alsace and fall for its white wines, which I did.
And then there are the Alsatian dishes to taste along the wine route, which not only pair well with the regional wines, but which typically have a regional wine as a key ingredient.
There is sauerkraut, choucroute in French, which is pickled cabbage cooked with Riesling, and is often served with potatoes, smoked meats and sausages. There is also the bäckeofe, which is a pot-dish of potatoes, leeks, beef, pork tail, and shoulder lamb slow-cooked all day in a white-wine sauce made from Pinot Blanc, Riesling or Sylvaner. And there are chicken and fish dishes in which the meat is cooked in Riesling or served with a sauce made from Riesling, cream and mushrooms.
The desserts are equally spectacular and are imbued with an undeniable festive quality. The kougelhopf is a brioche-like cake dusted in icing sugar, and there are Noël cookies in heart and star shapes that you can buy (or taste for free) as you wander through the town of Riquewihr, which is known as the Pearl of the Vineyard.
The region is a historical marvel. There is the impressive 12th century Castle of Haut Koenigsbourg, which is just off the main wine route, and the wine history in the region is just as rich. Some wine producers have their own wine museums, and inside the Klipfel museum there are bottles of wine from 1942 and century-old wine casks decorated with symbolic motifs.
The magic of the Alsace region has stayed with me, and the next time I go there will likely be in the Autumn so I can see the patchwork quilt countryside in shades of honey-yellow and auburn. I also would love to return in the winter to see the sparkling Christmas markets and smell the sweet spices of vin chaud, mulled red wine.
Although I cannot be there now in Alsace driving under the stone archways of the route or under the colourful flags strung above the road that name Alsace communes, such as Obernai, I can enjoy a glass of exotic Alsace Gewurztraminer, which pairs well with Thai or Indian food, and I can open a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace, sparkling wine from Alsace made in the traditional method, to have with Sunday brunch.
Feature photo: Old wine barrels at the Klipfel museum