In Alsace, the unique merging of Franco-Germanic culture has left as its reminder a region filled with charm and hidden delights. NORM ROBY falls in love with the picturesque villages and vineyards.
With so many undeniably charming villages surrounded by spectacular terraced grand cru vineyards, Alsace’s route du vin ranks high among the prettiest wine regions on earth. Add in a few castles perched on hilltops along the Vosges mountains, canals running through many of the medieval villages below, and the imposing Rhine river to the east, and Alsace wine moves closer to being unbeatable. But then once you factor in the fabled Michelin-starred restaurants, the classical hearty cuisine made from local ingredients, and recent signs of an inventive culinary spirit working to bring out the best in those highly individual Alsatian wines, Alsace is such a truly magical place that Alsace wine and food lovers may never want to leave once they have discovered it.
Even for first-time visitors, the Alsace wine route is easy to navigate. Extending from Thann in the south to Obernai in the north, it spans 125 miles. But since many of those villages dripping with charm are clustered together around Colmar, it is possible to visit two or three villages a day without driving great distances. That leaves more time to eat, and to enjoy Alsace wines, activities which also seem to be what Alsatians do best.
Colmar & Riquewihr
Like a five year-old at Disneyland, the Alsace wine lover’s dilemma is where to begin the ride. Colmar, the heart of Alsace’s wine country, offers just about everything typically Alsatian and yet is large enough for serious shopping and quaint enough for romantic strolling. It is also conveniently located near several must see villages, so a two or three-night stay would not be excessive.
Colmar’s old village, undamaged by wars, is lined with brightly coloured, half-timbered buildings. Soft night-time lighting throughout encourages walking and gawking long after nightfall. You should not miss visiting the imposing Collegiale St. Martin and the striking green-roofed Eglise des Dominicans. Both the Musée d’ Unterlinden and Musée Bartholdi (in honour of the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty) are also worthy of a visit. Within a few blocks of each, you can taste wines at Rene Mure’s Clos St. Landelin shop and also at Marc Tempe’s La Sommeliere. Everyone eventually heads for Petite Venise, the small canal-lined area that is the ultimate romantic spot. Several fine restaurants (Aux Trois Poissons, JY’S, Bartholdi, Wistub Brenner) are within walking distance. Two ideally located hotels (Le Colombier, which is highly recommended, and the Hotel le Marechal) are placed right in the centre of Petite Venise.
Riquewihr and Ribeauville lie a few minutes away and are the two other best-known gingerbread villages. Best-known, of course, means most crowded. Plan to visit the much smaller (and thus easily overrun by tourists) village of Riquewihr either early in the morning or closer to sunset. Though I found it oddly drab and too touristy to linger long, Riquewihr still merits a serious look. Hugel wines are made and offered for tasting here as are those from Dopff & Irion, and Dopff Au Moulin. A l’Oriel is a fine hotel with an excellent location and attentive staff. Arguably La Table du Gourmet is the village’s best restaurant for fine cuisine, but for the ultimate in intimate dining, try the eight-seat Pierrot le Fou where chef Baron Pierre von Werlhof turns out delicious food in an entertaining manner.
Riquewihr is also smack-bang in the most breathtaking vineyard trails, the sentiers grands crus. The most stunning trail begins in Kientzheim and meanders along to Riquewihr. You can pick this Alsace wine trail up again in the north and follow it along the steep slopes through Hunawihr until you arrive at Ribeauville’s back door. Along the way, there are a few picnic tables and many fantastic views. If you want to walk off the previous night’s foie gras, there is a 2km walking trail from Hunawihr to Riquewihr that takes you through the fabled grand cru Schoenbourg vineyard noted for Riesling. Next to the church in Hunawihr, the Wistub Suzel serves up good-value lunch and dinner in an unusually warm atmosphere.
Offering more restaurants, more shops, and more things to do, Ribeauville caters better for tourists without sacrificing its charm. Before setting foot in the inner villages, you can sample a range of wines at Bott Freres and Trimbach which both lie on the outskirts. At Bott Freres, you are likely to be hosted by Nicole Bott or her father. If you have time, call ahead to arrange an interesting and educational tour of the caves and winery. Lunch at the cosy Au Relais des Menetriers offers great value in its fixed menus. Once inside the village, you can stroll and sip from one end to the next. Good wines and a warm welcome are found at Domaine Jean Sipp at one end and at Louis Sipp at the other. Zum Pfifferhus is a wistub known for its traditional cuisine, while Au Valet de Coeur is best for more formal dining.
Festivals abound in Ribeauville, and one of its best is the Marche de Noel. For the two weekends prior to Christmas, the town and its people are decked out in medieval guise. For places to stay, three stand out. Surrounded by vineyards, Au Clos Saint Vincent is first-class, and the Hostellerie des Seigneurs du Ribeauville is also highly recommended. In town, the Hotel de la Tour is a great deal, especially considering its prime location.
After the three absolutely must-see villages of Colmar, Ribeauville, and Riquewihr, there are so many others to explore that adopting a personal favourite seems the thing to do as one tours Alsace. Eguisheim is a gem, with several places to taste wine, and serves as a starting point for a beautiful 4km tour through the grand cru vineyards. The Hostellerie du Chateau, now owned by the Wagner family, provides a perfect place to stay in the village centre. For dinner, the food, service and wine list at the Le Pavillon Gourmand will round off your stay.
Kientzheim, with its circular streets, merits a stop because it is so authentic. Wines can be tasted at Paul Blanck and the nearby cooperative. The main chateau at Kientzheim houses the Alsace Wine Museum, which has much more depth than most wine museums. Among the many other medieval villages to try and stop off at are Dambach-la-Ville, Bergheim and Turckheim.
My favourite ‘sleepers’ among the other wine villages are Kayserberg and Rouffach. At Kayserberg, be sure to visit the Albert Schweitzer Museum. Rouffach is a complete village casting its magical spell over visitors. As you leave the old village you can’t miss the grand Chateau d’Isenbourg, now a hotel with two restaurants, sitting on a hilltop. Rouffach is also home to Rene Mure’s Clos St. Landelin where you can taste the wines, including one of the best Alsatian Cremants. Linger over a fine meal here, enjoying the remarkable food and the equally remarkably slow service at the Wistub De La Poterne. For dinner, hunker down for a gastronomic feast at Philippe Bohrer.
Other places you should at least drive through are Ammerschwihr, close to Kayserberg, and Niedermorschwihr, which is a miniature of a typical Alsatian village. Both are real places whose residents go about their daily routine seemingly unaware of the sheer beauty of their villages. Munster, whose cheese is almost as famous as Alsatian wine, is also a bustling and ever so attractive village.
For one final day of indulgence, head to Obernai and the Le Parc Hotel and Restaurant. Owners Marc and Monique Wucher know how to pair wine and food – and how to pamper guests. Their La Stub Restaurant offers exciting regional lunches and the Table Gastronomique inventive cuisine using local ingredients.
SUGGESTED three-DAY ITINERARY
Day 1 (Arriving from the south)
At Thann, visit Collegiale Saint-Thiebaut
Drive to Guebwiller & taste wines at Domaines Schlumberger
Walk through Rouffach, lunch at Winstub de la Poterne,
visit Domaine Mure
Tour Eguisheim, take wine trail
Dinner: Le Pavillon Gourmand
Lodging: Hostellerie du Chateau, Eguisheim
Morning in Turckheim and Kientzheim
Visit Wine Museum in Kientzheim
Follow wine trail to Riquewihr
Walking tour of Riquewihr, taste wines at Hugel
Follow wine trail to Hunawihr, lunch at Wistub Suzel
Resume trail to Ribeauville, taste wines at Bott Freres
Dinner: Au Relais des Menetriers
Lodging: Hotel de la Tour, Ribeauville
Tour Castle Haut-Koenigsbourg
Visit Bergheim, lunch at Wistub du Sommelier
Head for Colmar
Tour Colmar’s old village, museums and Petite Venise
Dinner: Au Trois Poissons
Lodging: Le Colombier, Colmar