April 27, 1998

Features

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alsace

photo by Rene Corton

For visits to Alsace wineries, the small village of Kayserburg is a perfect destination

Visiting the Wine Region of Alsace

by Rene Corton

   Alsace lies in the northeast corner of France just across the Rhine River from the Black Forest region of Germany and the city of Freiburg. The region is centered around the town of Colmar and roughly bounded by Strasbourg on the north and Mulhouse on the south. The appearance of Alsace (pronounced Al-zass) is quite different from the other French wine regions, the German influence being immediately apparent in the charming little villages with half-timbered houses and abundant colorful beds of flowers. Without question this is one of the world's most picturesque and romantic wine regions, and serious wine trips should be arranged to avoid the legion of tourists in July and August. Mid September through October is my favorite time; the colors of the fall foliage in the vineyards are truly spectacular. Spring is my second choice.
  
   The climate of Alsace is heavily influenced by the Vosges Mountains. They trap the moisture of the prevailing west winds and together with the temperature-moderating effect of the Rhone River, the result is very dry summer months and long hot autumns--perfect for winemaking. Despite its northern location, Colmar is one of the driest towns in France. The varieties and abundance of flowers and fruit trees there is reminiscent of the more southern Rhone Valley. In fact, this is one of the centers of food production. Huge orchards of plum, pear, apple, peach, and cherry trees, fields of vegetables and dairies are just as prominent as vineyards, and the production of cheese and eaux-de-vie (fruit brandy) nearly as prevalent as winemaking.
  
   Getting to Alsace is relatively easy by car or train from such major cities as Frankfurt, Paris, or Lyon. The closest major international airports are Stuttgart and Zurich. Both are only about two hours away by car. From Seattle, the SAS flight to Copenhagen has excellent connections to both cities. Rent a car and you will be in your hotel room 15 hours after leaving Seattle.
  
   For wine-related visits, I suggest Colmar or one of the small surrounding villages such as Kayserberg, Riquewhir, or Ribeauville. For information on touring the region and its hotels, and restaurants, I strongly recommend "The Wine Atlas of France" by Hugh Johnson and Hubrecht Duijker (Mitchell Beazley). Duijker has also compiled a smaller volume covering only Alsace, "Touring In Wine Country Alsace," which is a more extensive version of the same material and is available in many local wine shops. Their recommendations are accurate and quite reliable.
  
   On my last trip we stayed at the Hotel Schoenbourg in Riquewhir. The location at the edge of the village abutting the grand cru vineyard Schoenbourg is both beautiful and convenient. Prices are moderate and the auberge next door is excellent with a well priced and extensive wine list. It is literally hard to have a poor meal in Alsace. From the common winstub serving hearty regional fare to Michelin three star restaurants, I have rarely been disappointed.
  
   The Haeberlin family's Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern with its specialties of foie gras and saumon souffle is beautifully located and elegant. The wine list is extensive and fairly priced. While expensive overall, value is reasonable. Given the quality and its top- notch status, its three stars are well deserved.
  
   At the other end of the spectrum, the modest Winstub du Sommelier in Bergheim owned by Jean-Marie Stoeckel, a former sommelier, is a classic French bistro serving delicious regional dishes. The ham in white wine sauce with Knepfla (a dumpling of flour, egg, and milk boiled and then baked to light brown crispness) was simply superb! The wine list is very well selected with many smaller less well-known growers and older vintages at prices equal to or less than retail prices in the states. Oh! How I wish I could magically pick this restaurant up and plop it down here.
  
   On the subject of food, the Alsatians have taken the best of Germany's hearty fare and combined it with the elegance of French cuisine to create a unique and rich style of their own. Their classic dishes must be tried or your visit will not be complete. Possibly the most famous is the soft rich pate de foie gras (goose or duck) served with a slightly sweet late harvest pinot gris or Gewurztraminer. I can't tell you how many liver haters I have persuaded to have this dish with happy results.
  
   Baeckeoffe is one of the region's great traditional stews in which marinated beef and lamb are slowly cooked with potatoes, vegetables and spices all sealed under a pastry lid. Served with creamy horseradish sauce and a glass of pinot gris, it makes a lovely dinner or hearty lunch. Tremendous amounts of cabbage are grown for choucroute (a sauerkraut which is more delicate and less tart than its German counterpart). The cabbage forms the basis of another local specialty, Choucroute a l'Alsacienne. This is a dish made of choucroute, potatoes, and five or six types of meat including sausages, franks, bacon, smoked pork, and ham. Frankly this is not visually appealing to most Americans, but with a dollop of good local mustard and a glass of pinot blanc or Riesling, it is flat out delicious.
  
   Onions are another local passion and the onion tarts, quiches, and soups are all excellent. Be absolutely sure to try the tarte flambee, or flamme kueche as it is known in the local dialect, a tasty thin-crust pizza without tomatoes covered with cream, onions, cheese and options of ham, bacon, sausage, etc. and cooked in a hot stone oven. It is simply splendid as an appetizer, snack, or light lunch. Hubert Trimbach of Domaine Trimbach suggested we have tarte flambee for starters before lunch, and we were so impressed we returned that night and ate them again for dinner with a different topping.
  
   Also common in this land of black and white Vosgienne cows and many dairies are cheeses, of which pungent strong Munster is the most famous. A small, creamy cheese made using unpasteurized milk, it is typically served sprinkled with cumin seeds and accompanied by a glass of Gewurztraminer. On the Route du Fromage toward Munster there are about 30 farms at which you can stop and sample, and in the town of Munster there are a number of fromageries or cheese shops.
   Now that you are well fed and rested, I will take you on the Route du Vin and cover the wines of Alsace in the next article.