Vicky Bishop spent two months riding her horse around France's wine regions. SUSAN LOW joined her in Alsace, and learned more than she expected about the region.
Life looks very different from atop a large, long-necked, four-legged beast – in this case a beautiful chestnut mare called Dromara. People look at you differently too. Those who would ordinarily pass you in the street without a second glance look at you with wide-eyed wonder. Children point and stare and follow you as if you’re the Pied Piper. It’s like being a celebrity for a day, although I imagine few celebs suffer from saddle-soreness by the end of their day. This wasn’t just any old hack through the countryside, though. I was in the Alsace region, participating in The Great French Ride (see box, next page). With Lily and Dromara, our trusted steeds, Vicky Bishop and I would spend the next five days travelling over hill and dale. In the Alsace region, getting back to the land is a fruitful thing to do; the word ‘terroir’ really means something here.
Geologically, the Alsace region is incredibly complex, the product of two parallel faults, their movements resulting in a patchwork of soil types and sun-catching slopes. Each accommodates particular vines and gives certain flavours and textures to the finished wine. Reading about the intricacies of soil types may not top the list of the world’s most fascinating pastimes, but climb on a horse, head for the hills and the meaning of such terms as calcareous clay, tertiary conglomerate, even, my favourite, ferruginous matrix (apparently found in the Wiebelsberg grand cru) fall magically into place.
One sun-drenched afternoon, our host, Jean Meyer of the Josmeyer winery, arranged a guide, Remy Bucciali and his champion endurance horse, Mr Choccy, to accompany us up into the Vosges for a picnic lunch. Leaving the winery behind, we set off through the picturesque village of Wintzenheim. Off we headed, into the neat rows of vineyards and, eventually, into Vosges. As we climbed the air became cooler and the scent of pine drifted up. A backward glance over Dromara’s rump revealed the steeply pitched roofs of the village growing smaller in the distance.
We came to a clearing, a sun-dappled patch of earth dominated by a huge cross commemorating the Alsatian troops who died fighting the Germans during World War II. Although much of the Alsace region may appear Germanic to a visitor, the Alsatians are proudly, fiercely Alsacien, even before they are French. This spot seemed to sum up the soul of Alsace: a diligent, proud place where history is part of the present as well as the past.
What’s in a name
There is an even more ancient history in the names of the grands crus. From our hilltop viewpoint, we could look across the river Fecht to the slope behind Turckheim, the grand cru Brand (‘land of fire’). It’s so called because, as a medieval legend has it, Brand was the home of an evil dragon. The sun and the dragon did battle, and the sun emerged victorious. If you look hard enough, you can see a small hollow in the slope, a very warm spot, still called the ‘dragon’s hole’.
Legends aside, Brand, with its south-east exposure, is a sun trap, the wines long-lived and flavourful. On the slopes south of Wintzenheim lies grand cru Hengst (stallion), a name that conjures up medieval jousts. Wines from Hengst are noted for their longevity, and are said to be wild and untamed in their youth.
Of course, there’s more to Alsace’s winemaking story than legends and vineyards. Back at the winery Jean Meyer takes us on a cellar tour. A silver-haired, quick-witted and deeply thoughtful man, Meyer points out ‘the most important piece of equipment in the winery’ – a large wooden cask that holds 3,200 litres of wine and is no less than a century old. His philosophy of winemaking is to ‘respect the wine as if it were a human – it’s life’, he says. Josmeyer has worked biodynamically since 1999.
Another biodynamic producer is Marc Kreydenweiss, further north in the town of Andlau. The river Andlau runs behind the winery, and beyond it the Kastelberg mountain, a grand cru site, rises. It’s a beautiful spot. Kreydenweiss, a tall, broad, serious man, has been producing wines biodynamically since 1989. ‘We have a rich geology here; if you want to get the particularities of the region, you need to respect the soil,’ he explains.
Both Josmeyer and Kreydenweiss produce tiny amounts of high-quality wine, but they represent only one aspect of Alsace’s wine story. Back in the comfort of our saddles, we made for the Turckheim cooperative. In contrast to Josmeyer and Kreydenweiss, Turckheim is a huge place, stuffed full with the latest technology. They turn out about 70 million bottles a year, almost a third of all the Alsace wine drunk in the UK each year. Yet, despite the large-scale production, the quality of the wine is high, from fruity Muscat to unctuously rich Tokay Pinot Gris Séléction Grains Nobles from the grand cru Brand site, a stone’s throw from the cellar door.
After a long but satisfying tasting, Vicky and I took Lily and Dromara into the vineyards for some exercise. We noted that ‘the girls’ seemed to have acquired a taste for Alsace wines – at least the grapes. There were fewer of them on the vines by the time we got those two back in the camion, as they’d taken it upon themselves to do a small ‘green harvest’ as a pre-lunch appetiser. I can understand their enthusiasm, but Vicky and I will stick with the wine.