Wedged along the French-German border, the breathtaking Alsace wine country has been the site of much historical turmoil. Today, visitors flock to it for its distinctive architecture, quaint towns, hiking, bicycling, food and amazing wines.
Separated from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains, Alsace is largely undiscovered by Americans even as its wines prove increasingly popular in U.S. restaurants. Stretching south from Strasbourg, the long, narrow wine region is famous for its white grape varietals including Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, as well as sparkling Cremant d’ Alsace wine, a blend of multiple grapes.
The grape growing areas follow the foothills of the Vosges, a fertile area dotted with terraced vineyards and Grand Crus producing spectacular wines. The mountains provide cover for the vines while blocking moisture from the West, making this the driest of French winemaking areas.
Visitors can follow the trail known as the Route des Vins (Wine Route), which stretches more than 100 miles from north to south. Along the way, the towns of Alsace are postcards come to life, full of tiny streets with half-timbered houses adorned with flower pots. In between tasting wine, be sure to spend a few hours roaming the quaint towns of Turckheim, Eguisheim, Colmar and Riquewihr.
For cycling, more than 1200 miles of bike trails and routes take you past vineyards and farms, from the Rhine river on the German border to the mountains, though on the main road you will ride with traffic due to a lack of designated bike lanes.
In the north, the region’s gateway, Strasbourg, connects with Paris via TGV high-speed train in just two hours and twenty minutes. Take time to stroll through the historic, largely auto-free Grande Île, the first city center to be classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the Notre Dame Cathedral (also known as Strasbourg Cathedral). This soaring Gothic masterpiece was the tallest building in the world for over 200 years. Inside, the famed 18 meter tall Astronomical Clock draws a crowd every day at 12:30pm with a miniature procession led by Jesus and his apostles.
Another photogenic area south of the Grande Ile worth exploring is La Petite France with its canal, half-timbered houses and narrow cobblestone streets. To the north of the center, the European Parliament meets in the striking Louise Weiss building, with visits possible in plenary weeks with advance reservations.
Alsatian wines tend to range from mineral-driven and dry to quite sweet and exuberant. The weather is very conducive to producing crisp wines – long sunny days with the least amount of rain in France and cold winters. Many prominent wineries today use biodynamic practices in their vineyards and as a result are also organic. Try anything from the 2007 and 2009 vintages, which are both considered terrific years. 2011 was considered good but not up to the level of 2009, while 2010 was a challenging year weather wise, resulting in varying quality.
Some wineries are not open to the public except by appointment – in those cases contact information is noted below. While wine tastings often are free, it is customary to buy something afterwards. Avoid visiting during the harvest, which in Alsace runs from mid to late September to mid to late October.
Vignoble Klur – Winery & Guesthouse (105 rue des Trois Epis, Katzenthal, website)
A biodynamic winery that produces two ranges, the higher end, terroir-focused Klur and the more everyday Katz, which spotlights grape varietals. The engaging Clément Klur overseas the winemaking process – ask him to take a peek in the unique round cellar. Klur’s wines tend towards the lean, mineral side, with high acidity often found in Alsatian wines. Try the Cremant de Clément, a very good dry sparkler, aromatic Katz Muscat, bone-dry high acid Pinot Blanc Katz, and the Grand Crus from Wineck-Schlossberg, named for the ruined castle on the hill above the town. The organic-living guest apartments (LINK to Where to Stay) provide an ideal place to base your trip.
Open Monday – Saturday 1:30pm – 6pm for tasting of current releases, tour and wine tasting for groups from €6 p.p. and up.
Domaine Weinbach (25 Route de Vin, Kaysersberg, website)
One of the most storied names in Alsace, Domaine Weinbach occupies a former Capuchin monastery built in 1612, the original five hectares still enclosed by stone walls. Purchased by the Faller family in 1898 and run by women for two generations, Weinbach produces complex, delicious wines that are highly sought after. Look for mineral-driven wines such as the Riesling Schlossberg and Cuvee St. Catherine Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru, both from the first designated Alsatian Grand Cru, or the full-bodied Gewürztraminers, especially the elegant Attenburg with its ginger notes and spices and the powerful Grand Cru Furstentum. Sweeter wines display incredible balance – seek out a Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives, Gewürztraminer Attenburg SGN (Sélection de Grains Nobles, selection of noble rot) and the voluptuous Late Harvest Riesling Schlossberg Grand Cru. Biodynamic since 2005.
Zind Humbrecht, (4 Rte de Colmar, Turckheim, website)
Zind Humbrecht is the product of a marriage between two winemaking families in 1959 and today they are the second largest landowners in Alsace, with 40 hectares of biodynamically grown grapes. The offices and tasting room sit amidst the Herrenweg vineyard just outside the historic center of Turckheim. While Riesling and Gewürztraminer are well represented, the winery also makes Muscat, a blend of Chardonnay and Auxerrois called “Zind” and several different Pinot Gris, most notably the bone-dry Rotenberg and the richer, semi-dry Clos Windsbuhl. Gewürztraminer is well represented by the Herrenweg de Turckheim Vieilles Vignes, a full-bodied wine aromatic with aromas of rose, and the deliciously spicy and mineral-driven Hengst Grand Cru. The Brand Sélection de Grains Nobles Riesling shows great acidity and intense fruit and floral flavors. The Vendanges Tardives Jebsal Pinot Gris may have over 70 grams of residual sugar, but the acidity at the finish brings balance to this wine, a perfect pairing for cheese or a fruit tart.
Josmeyer (76 rue Clemenceau, Wintzenheim, website)
This biodynamic house dates back to 1854 and continues to remain in the family today, currently overseen by Jean Meyer and his daughters Celine and Isabelle. Josmeyer owns 26 hectares all within two miles and is so devoted to biodynamic principles that they use their own compost to minimize the presence of sulfur in the grapes. Wines from the Hengst Grand Cru vineyard, first championed by winery founder Aloyse Meyer, are among the ones to seek out. Though planted in Hengst, the Pinot Auxerrois cannot hold the designation and is known as “H,” a refined wine with a dry finish. Rieslings include the Hengst Grand Cru, a savory wine rich and full of minerality, Samain Hengst Riesling, a very expressive wine that matures slowly into rich deliciousness, and Les Pierrets Riesling, an assemblage from three different parcels that is full-bodied and mineral-driven. The Artist Series of wines comes in bottles with striking labels by Alsatian artists.
Open Monday – Friday 9am – 12pm & 2pm – 6pm and Saturday 9am – 12pm.
Kuentz-Bas (14 Route de Vins, Husseren-les-Chateaux, website)
The history of Kuentz-Bas dates back to 1795 according to the town records of the Kuentz winemaking family, though the winery transferred ownership to the Bas family in 1950, and then Jean Baptiste Adam, who also owns a winery bearing his name in nearby Ammerschwihr. Occupying the highest point on the wine route, Kuentz-Bas produces wines in three ranges, Tradition, which is a more everyday wine focused on the expression of the grape; the terroir-focused Collection; and Trois Chateaux, the winery’s true showcase, an organic range produced exclusively from grapes the winery grows. A good overview is provided by tasting three Rieslings – one from each category – side by side. The Tradition is a typical Riesling, crisp, lean and dry, while the Collection is richer and more complex, and the Trois Chateaux is even richer, with acidity to balance it out. Pinot Gris follows a similar path with the Tradition being very dry with a lot of green notes while the Trois Chateaux is richer with some sweetness up front but balanced on the finish. Also seek out the Trois Chateaux Auxerrois for a more adventurous expression of a lesser known grape and the Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Pfersigberg, with its distinctive tropical fruit nose.
Open Monday – Friday 8am – 12pm, 1pm – 6pm, Saturday 10am – 12pm, 1pm – 5pm
Barmes-Buecher, (30 rue du St. Gertrude, Wettolsheim, website)
In a region steeped in history, the story of Barmes-Buecher dates only to 1985 when winemakers Genevieve Buecher and the late Francois Barmes married and began producing wine under their joint names. Certified biodynamic in 1998, the winery produces Pinot Noir alongside the traditional three Alsatian varietals (Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc). More than one-third of the production is devoted to Cremant d’Alsace Brut, a crisp, zero dosage (no added sugar) sparkler comprised of Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Blance and Pinot Noir. The winery grows grapes on nine different sites including three Grand Crus: Steingrübler, Hengst and Pfersigberg. A Riesling Herrenweg was austere with high acidity, while fuller bodied wines from the Rosenberg vineyard included Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Steingrübler lives up to Grand Cru status in both the Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Steingrübler, tremendously complex due to well integrated minerality, and Riesling Grand Cru Steingrübler, an excellent full-bodied, off dry wine.
Open Monday – Saturday 9am – 12pm & 2pm – 6:30pm by appointment
Leon Beyer (8 Place Château St Léon, Eguisheim, website)
This tiny shop occupies the ground floor of a half-timbered house on a picturesque square in the center of Eguisheim. The Beyers represent fourteen centuries of winemaking experience and have traditionally been interested in gastronomy, hence an emphasis on dry wines that pair well with food, the only rare exception being the occasional sweet wine. The wines to look out for here are the Comtes d’Eguisheim line, which are aged in bottle for a minimum four years and only produced in the best years. The Comtes d’Eguisheim Riesling is less dry than other Beyer Rieslings with a pleasant roundness, while the Comtes d’Eguisheim Pinot Gris is more delicate with less acid and the Comtes d’Eguisheim Gewürztraminer has ripe spicy aromas and just a hint of richness. If you can find it, pick up the 1998 Vendanges Tardives Gewürztraminer, which was harvested in six passes and is deliciously silky. From the Classic line, the dry Muscat is delicious.
Open Monday – Wednesday, Friday – Sunday 10am – 12pm & 2pm – 6pm; closed January and February
Marcel Deiss (15 Route du Vin, Bergheim, website)
Marcel Deiss winery, overseen by Jean-Michel Deiss, produces a number of interesting Vins de Terroirs or field blends of grapes from different vineyards. A comparison between Langenberg and Engelgarten is emblematic of the approach – field blends of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Muscat yielding quite different expressions. Langenburg’s granite soil yields a floral, honeyed wine redolent of apples while Engelgarten’s gravel brings a stoniness to its wine. For a sense of a geographic orientation influencing wine, compare wines from the Rotenberg and Grasberg vineyards, the former on a south-facing slope where sun exposure amps up sugar levels but means an earlier harvest with great acidity to balance the wine, while the latter’s northern exposure brings a later harvest and a richer, more tropical wine. The three Grand Crus of Altenberg, Mamburg and Schoenenbourg tend to yield bigger, complex wines perfect for aging. The Schoenenbourg is particularly extraordinary, around 70% old vines Riesling with Pinot Noir, Chasselais and Sylvaner. This wine should be laid down for a minimum of 10 years. Biodynamic since 1997.
Open Monday – Saturday 9am – 6pm
Rolly-Gassmann (2 rue de l’Eglise, Rorschwihr)
Drop into this busy cellar across from the church in tiny Rorschwihr for richer wines that tend to be higher in residual sugar. The winery generally cellars its wines for a minimum of four years, and often longer, so there are ample opportunities to taste numerous old vintages from the extensive list of more than 50 wines open for tasting. The wines aim for balance between sweetness and acidity, with every Alsatian grape varietal represented in numerous vintages.
Open Monday – Saturday 9am – 12pm & 1pm – 6pm, 2nd and 4th Sundays 10am – 12pm & 1pm – 6pm
Marc Kreydenweiss (12 rue Deharbe, Andlau, website)
One of the pioneers of the biodynamic movement in Alsace, Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss is another product of an Alsatian marriage – the Gresser and the Kreydenweiss families. Marc converted to biodynamic practices in 1989 and ever since has been one of the philosophy’s foremost proponents. The wines tend to be dry and vibrant, with good minerality, which is on display in the La Fontaine Aux Enfants, a Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois blend, “Clos Rebberg” Pinot Gris and Wiebelsberg Grand Cru Riesling. Another Grand Cru, the Kastelberg produces excellent Rieslings that are perfect for aging. For something unique, the bone dry Clos du Val d’Eleon is a rare Riesling/Pinot Gris blend.
Remy Gresser (2 rue de l’ecole, Andlau, website)
A cousin of Marc Kreydenweiss, Remy Gresser also farms biodynamically, although his wines are less stylistically austere. Gresser’s labels make deciphering the wine easy, displaying a 1 to 10 scale of sweetness. Like Kreydenweiss, Gresser makes wines from three different Grand Crus – Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg. On the drier end, the Brandhof Muscat d’Alsace stood out as a beautiful expression of this aromatic grape, while the Duttenberg Gewürztraminer was exuberant with intoxicating perfumes and a flowery nose, and the Kastelberg Riesling Grand Cru displayed a well-rounded minerality. On the sweeter side, seek out a Vendanges Tardives from any of the three Grand Crus.
Eat & Drink
Le Moreote (12 rue du General Rieder, Kaysersberg, 03-8947-3908, website) occupies a charming townhouse in the sleepy town of Kaysersberg. The setting is intimate but the cooking, though rooted in Alsatian cuisine is surprisingly refined. Foie gras fans is a house specialty, starring in a pair of appetizers. A la carte or five-course tasting menu for €56.
Auberge de l’Ill (2 rue de Collonges, Illhaeusern, 03-8971-8900, website) is the region’s celebrated Michelin three-star temple of fine dining, the second longest holder in France of this honor. Settle in for modern cuisine in beautifully appointed rooms, many with views of the river below. Fixed menus €121 or €165, a la carte also available. The family also runs the five-star Hotel des Berges (website) on the gorgeous property.
Located in Colmar’s “Petite Venise,” a beautiful area intersected by canals reminiscent of Venice, Wistub Brenner (1 rue de Turenne, Colmar, 03-8941-4233, website) serves traditional Winstub, or Alsatian tavern, cuisine including delicious choucroute. If the weather allows, sit outside and take in views of the Old Town and the Lauch river.
La Palette (9 rue de Herzog, Wettolsheim, 03-8980-7914, website) is a hotel and restaurant featuring modern seasonal French cooking. Entrees from €18 – €28.
For one of the region’s specialties, the tarte flambée, a thin flatbread topped with fromage blanc, onions and lardons, try a couple options in Turckheim:
L’Abreuvoir (8 Place Turenne, Turckheim 03-8980-9073, website) is a traditional Alsatian restaurant featuring tarte flambée.
Almost next door, Au P’tit Moulin (2 Place de Turenne, Turckheim) is a more casual place to dine in or take out with a variety of tarte flambées available.
In Andlau, Au Boeuf Rouge (6 rue du Docteur Stoltz, Andlau, 03-8808-9626, website) features traditional Alsatian dishes such as tarte flambée, tête de veau, veal kidneys and choucroute.
Biscuiterie du Chateau (website), with locations in both Eguisheim and Colmar, sells macarons, shortbread and meringues.
Tipping in France: While a service charge is included in the bill – “service compris” – it is customary to tip waitstaff. Leave 5 – 10% in cash, depending on the level of restaurant. In cafes and casual places, just round up to the next Euro or leave some change.
Where to Stay
Vignoble Klur (Katzenthal, website)
This winery has several charming apartments and a guest cottage in the vineyards, all outfitted with organic sheets and linens. Prices are €90 and up per night, with a 3 night minimum (prices lower for longer stays), including high-speed internet, pool, wine cellar visit, wine tasting and a welcome bottle of wine.
La Cour du Bailli (57 Grand Rue, Bergheim, website) is an appealing hotel in the center of town with rooms from €86 per night. The restaurant serves traditional Alsatian cuisine in a wine cellar dating back to the 16th Century. Nearby, its owners, the Halbeisens, also run a winery that has been in the family since 1737.
Le Clos Saint Vincent (Osterbergweg, Ribeauville, website) is a charming twenty-four room hotel in the middle of vineyards. Rooms from €150.
Wines of Alsace: www.civa.fr
Walking and Bike Tours in Alsace: http://www.horizons-alsace.com/en/