Picturesque and full of history, Alsace produces wines with distinctive terroir. // © 2013 Kathy Bryant
Steeped in 2,000 years of history, Alsace wines express a unique terroir (the characteristics of the land on which they were produced). Grapes grown along the 105-mile Alsace wine route reflect the soils, elevations and microclimates of the region, all of which contribute to the wines’ distinctive flavors.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Alsace wine route. Visiting here is like stepping into a storybook land, where the Vosges Mountains serve as a backdrop for half-timbered houses in 100 picturesque villages, ruined castles from the Middle Ages, historic steepled churches and welcoming wineries.
For visitors new to the area, the first surprise will probably be the prevalence of German culture. Due to the area’s turbulent history, during which Alsace changed from French to German rule four times in 75 years, names of villages and wines are often Germanic.
There are seven wines grown here: sylvaner, pinot blanc, riesling, muscat, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and pinot noir. The white wines are the best, especially the riesling and gewürztraminer, offering fresh, fruity and spicy notes. (The pinot noir wines lack the body of wines from other regions in France.)
One of the wineries we visited was Domaine Weinbach in Kayserberg. Run by Colette Faller and her daughters Catherine and Laurence, this 74-acre vineyard produces several different wines based on the varying terroir in the area. One of their rieslings was especially dry because it was grown on flat ground in alluvian soil, while another was grown in granite soil, making it less dry than the other. These are just two of many instances in which the same grape creates very different wines due to soil and elevation. All the grapes of this winery are organic and are picked by hand. Irrigation is not allowed in the vineyards of Alsace.
At the Albert Seltz Winery, we were given a tour by Albert Seltz, a 14th-generation owner and winemaker, who talked about the minerality of soil as we moved from flat land to the hills to feel the different texture and color of the soils. Seltz championed his sylvaner and was instrumental in making it the only sylvaner grand cru in Alsace. Grand cru (great growth) is the highest ranking of wines from Alsace.
Of course, pairing the right wine with the right food will make any wine better. The choucroute of Alsace, with its sauerkraut, smoked meats and vegetables, goes perfectly with a number of these wines. Alsace has over 25 Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Le Chambard in Kayserberg, which puts a contemporary spin on traditional foods like onion tarts.
Cremant d’Alsace is a sparkling white apertif wine that is dryer than other French varieties. Not as complex as champagne, it is still a fresh wine that we enjoyed tasting in the vineyards of Clos Gaensbroennel in Barr. Potent eaux-de-vies include framboise (raspberry) and poire (pear) William.
Getting to Alsace is relatively easy since there is a TGV train that goes directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Strasbourg, famous for its soaring medieval cathedral. This walk-able city is a good place to start a wine tour, perhaps in the charming Petite France area, with buildings dating back to 1572.
From Strasbourg, you can rent a car to explore the wine route — allowing at least three days — or take a guided tour from the city. The car is really the best way to go, however. There isn’t much traffic and you can easily explore towns such as Colmar, as well as villages such as Kayserberg, Riquewihr, Rodern and Obernai, among many others, at your own speed.