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The Sensational Wines of Alsace

Alsace is home to the oldest tourist wine route in France – testament to the superb wines that have long been produced here.

Alsace, in north-eastern France on the border with Germany, has a dual personality. It’s resolutely French and yet the people speak with a faint German accent. The names of the villages are German in origin. And, the food, whilst undeniably French, has a rather Teutonic flavour, just think of choucroute (sauerkraut) and those hearty, meaty stews.

This is because the area was fought over by France and Germany for centuries, and it switched its nationality 7 times! Germany ceded the region to France after WWII and the Treaty of Versailles.

The Wines of Alsace

The wines too are without doubt French but have more than a touch of German influence about them – noticeably the grape varieties used and the ubiquitous Germanic script on many of the labels. In addition, they use the German way of naming and ranking their wines and regions. Stylistically though, they are very different from those of the Rhine and Mosel, being weightier and more concentrated.

The Alsace plain is a wide band of land on either side of the Rhine river. Rich in alluvial deposits, it was formed at least five million years ago when the Vosges-Black Forest Massif collapsed. Its vineyards are located on the edge of the plain, along the Vosges fault. The Romans planted vines here more than 2000 years ago.

Three main groups of terroirs live side by side. The first – the most sloping – has soil that is granitic and sandy, filtering and acidic. The second boasts well-drained hills that are calcareous or marly at altitudes of between 200 and 300m. This is where the Grands Crus – of which there are 51 from 7 grape varieties – are to be found, wines with amazing personality. The third group is formed by big alluvial terraces of pebbles, sand and gravel.

The Alsace wine route

The Alsace wine route winds its way between wonky half-timbered villages that look like they’ve fallen out of a set for a grand German opera or maybe a Walt Disney movie. Picturesque villages full of lopsided buildings, fairy tale castles and towers that look like Rapunzel once lived there are plentiful along the 170km historic wine route which runs from Marlenheim in the north (20km from Strasbourg) to Thann in the south. Vineyards lap right up to the walls of castles and to the edge of flowery villages, several of which are classified ‘Plus Beaux Villages de France’ (the most beautiful villages in France), as you pass by the sunny hillsides.

In Eguisheim, officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, the medieval streets wind wing in a helter-skelter effect around a castle. Bergheim, AKA ‘capital’ of Gewurtztraminer is filled with half-timbered 15th century houses. Riquewihr where the many vaulted cellars offer several varieties of wine. The villages are surrounded by walking trails, and you can crisscross the hills by bike, as the cycle route of the Alsace vineyards runs parallel with the road. And in Kaysersberg, voted favourite village of the French in 2021, explore the narrow, cobbled streets lined with half-timbered buildings.

If you stand at the top of one of the Grand Cru vineyards high up in the Vosges mountains, you begin to get a clue as to why this area is so very special. The view across the Rhine Rift Valley into Germany is magnificent on a clear day. The best vineyards nestle high up, facing the sun and protected from the westerly winds by the Vosges. These mountains also create a rain shadow effect which is why Colmar is the driest town in France after Perpignan deep down south near the Spanish border.

Along the way enjoy delicious wines and wind down in a winstub, a traditional style bistro and savour local dishes like flammekueche (Alsatian pizza), coq au Riesling, spaetzle, sauerkraut and Munster, the king of Alsatian cheeses.

Find out more about the Alsace wine route: www.alsace-wine-route.com

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