There are some familiar wine names in this peculiarly German region of France – Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir – but there are some wines I’d never heard of before taking the winding roads through this fantastically beautiful region. Sylvaner, Auxerrois and the virtually unpronounceable Gewürztraminer, to name only a few. This unfamiliarity adds to the allure of a journey through the villages and vineyards of Alsace, and seems to complement the complicated cultural and historical backdrop of the region.
This was one of France’s first wine routes, and is one of the most celebrated. The route is 65-years old this year but some of the vineyards and winemakers have been around for centuries. At 172km in length we didn’t have time to do the whole route, or to visit more than a handful of the ridiculously picturesque villages that are liberally scattered around Alsace’s rolling hills. The main villages, while attractive, also attract coach loads of day trippers, and can be a bit of a mixed experience, but you don’t have to go too far off the main tourist trail to find more tranquil spots.
We started our day in Obernai and, after the previous day’s rain, were glad that the sun was back in the sky. Our destination was the town of Colmar in the south of the region, famed for both its wealth of historic buildings and its ‘Petite Venice’ canal district – an overstatement for sure, but it’s still a pretty part of the town. In between, we spent several hours meandering around the countryside and sampling a wine or two. It was a glorious journey along narrow roads with vineyards nestling up against villages of half-timbered houses.
This is a part of France where many of the villages have Germanic names – Kintzheim, Kayserberg, Mittelbergheim, Bergheim – thanks to a convoluted and frequently violent history between the two countries. German names extend to food, as we discovered over a lunchtime flammküchen, better known as a tartes flambée in the rest of France. Giant pretzels were on sale in almost every village we visited. Alsace’s split personality makes it a disorienting place to visit. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have bumped into Hansel and Gretel.
We stopped in Kintzheim, Bergheim, Ribeauvillé, Dambach-la-Ville and Riquewihr to explore the streets and alleyways. The villages started to blur into one by the time we finally reached Colmar later that same day. I’m sure they all have their own personality, but in the end we could barely distinguish one village from another, so alike are they architecturally. It was Easter which meant residents could give full artistic licence to a truly alarming tendency to decorate buildings with stuffed toys, wooded hearts, stork effigies, eggs and a myriad of other decorations. Some might say it’s a bit kitsch.
There is no doubt that this is a beautiful part of France, and the quaint villages add an extra dimension to the region. I wish we’d had a little more time to allow us spend a night or two in some of the smaller villages and get a real flavour of life, and to sample wines from some of the more than one thousand producers that operate out of these tiny places. I’ve heard Strasbourg is a place that deserves a visit, and it’s only a short distance to the vineyards. I’m thinking autumn when the grape harvest is in full swing and the villages host harvest festivals!