Alsace is a fascinating place. It is only barely on the radar of countries to the west of it, and this would include France. Aside from wine growers across the Rhine (in Rheingau and Pfalz especially), the Germans tend to overlook it, too. The Swiss, however, are, on the whole, entranced by Alsace. I doubt you could easily find a Swiss that doesn't vacation there, but since Switzerland isn't a particularly populous nation, Alsace remains one of Europe's best kept secrets.
While Alsace is undeniably part of France, and has been since Barbarian hordes waged war throughout western Europe, one need not gaze long at any single village throughout this picturesque region to see how deeply it is rooted in medieval Teutonic influence. The half-timbered buildings and narrow, cobbled streets so effectively co-opted by Disney truly run the risk of being surreal to more jaded visitors, but this only adds to the charm. After a while it can feel as though you are in Bavaria...until you speak to someone.
And in Alsace, this is not hard to do. There can hardly be a friendlier region in the world than Alsace. An interesting disposition, given the history of bloodshed it has endured (Julius Caesar swept through with a Roman Legion; the Thirty Years' War destroyed most of Alsace's vineyards; more recently it became a geo-political ping-pong ball with the Franco-Prussian War and WWI; and it suffered near obliteration during the final years of WWII), but perhaps it was the only way to survive and even thrive under such stresses. This no doubt has something to do with why Alsatians have a regional loyalty, considering themselves first Alsatian, then French, much the way Virginians or Texans do (though perhaps not for the same reason...).
The wine culture in Alsace is very much its own. The wines of Alsace are labeled by grape variety, not by regional appellation. The grapes grown there, of which there are ten varieties, yield wildly different wines, giving Alsace wines excellent utility with food. Ninety percent of the wines made in Alsace are white, and are as a rule, dry. Riesling is at its zenith (in the dry style, anyway), in Alsace, and it is justifiably the most heavily planted variety. The other major varieties are Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.
Wines are mostly sold by single variety, but there are some blended exceptions. The wines can be subdivided further, in one case by a Grand Cru system, and in another by two categories of late harvest wines, which are:
- Vendanges Tardives--picked late, often affected by botrytis cinerea, or 'noble rot' that reduces the water content of grapes, concentrating the raw materials and intensifying the flavors. Once upon a time these wines were vinified dry by almost everyone, but as temperatures have increased, that has not often been an option.
- Sélection des Grains Nobles--grapes that are picked even later, and have to be affected by botrytis cinerea. These wines are sweet but insanely complex--sometimes so riveting that the sweetness doesn't impact your palate as 'sweet'. These wines are expensive enough to make your palms sweat, but they can be glorious.
As for the Grands Crus, they represent the system of delimiting certain vineyards as superior. This is controversial, of course, but there is plenty of evidence for the establishment of this kind of delimitation in Alsace. Only four grape varieties--Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Riesling--are entitled to Grand Cru status in any of the fifty-one Grands Crus of Alsace. The controversy surrounding the Grands Crus results from the democratic way they were chosen, not always on demonstrated superiority, and that they are too large to be entirely capable of producing wines of exalted status and price. On top of this, there are many areas, often walled vineyards known as clos, that aren't Grands Crus but certainly could be. Despite the controversy, the results have generally been in line with the original intent.
The Wine Road
The Wine Route (Route du Vin) through Alsace makes a splendid bicycle (or car) tour that will take you through nearly 100 villages along the Vosges Mountains. Colmar, known as La Petite Venice for its idyllic series of canals, is the only town-sized stop along the route. Key stops along the way include Eguisheim, Gueberschwihr, Kaysersberg, Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, Thann, and Turckheim. The village of Beblenheim, technically not on the Route du Vin, also makes a wonderful stop. These villages on the wine route also have summer festivals where they pull out all the stops. In the case of Ribeauvillé, the fountain in the city center literally flows with wine.
Alsace also provides fabulous travel by barge through its canal system. As in Burgundy or on the Canal du Midi in the southwest, one can go in luxurious style on a barge with staterooms, or on a self-guided tour. The villages along the wine route are easily accessible by barge as well.
Finally, Alsatian cuisine is indeed its own category, as it is a crossing of German and French cuisines. It tends toward the heavier, Germanic side, but the French influence has given Alsatian cuisine its unique nature. Alsace is the bread capital of France. The famous Kugelhopf has crossed international boarders, but there are more kinds of bread made there than in any other region, offering much to explore. An extraordinarily broad array of charcuterie is made in Alsace, and it is one of France's sources of Foie Gras. And for restaurant lovers, one of the world's few Michelin three-star restaurants, L'Auberge de l'Ill is a must.
Alsace gives much to discover, but start with the wines, and let them draw you in, too.
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