Tuesday, 17th September 2019 – Alsace Wine Tour (Strasbourg, Obernai, Dambach-la-ville, Ribeauvillé, Bergheim)
We made an early start because we needed to meet the tour guide from Ophorus Tours at 09:00 outside the Tourist Information office in Strasbourg. We’d booked a full day tour of Alsace, stopping off at three different wine growers on the way. This was organised through Winerist who we’d used for a Bordeaux tour last year. The experience had been so good that we’d had no hesitation in seeking them out again for a trip around our latest destination. There are a number of reasons for using them not least because they employ genuine experts in their field who originate from the region they work in or know it perfectly, speak excellent English, and hold the WSET level 2 in Wines & Spirits, the course I’m going on in January next year, which means they know a great deal about the wines and winemakers they take you to visit.
We arrived a tad too early and struggled to find anywhere open to get a coffee. When we eventually did, we shared a small kougelhopf between us and then arrived back at the meeting place five minutes before time. We were soon rounded up along with the other 6 people on the tour and set off out of town towards Obernai. It was a bit of a cold day at this point and I must admit I was wishing I’d brought a sweater. However, we stopped outside town initially and noted that although the Vosges mountains were being rather shy, the cloud was beginning to lift. Our initial stop was at the Mémorial National des Incorporés de Force, which was inaugurated in 1956 in memory of the 272 inhabitants of the canton who dies or disappeared during the Second World Ward when they were forced to serve in the German Army, and, to prevent them from deserting or turning against their own “side”, were sent off to the Eastern Front and never came back – because most combatants sent there didn’t come back (my uncle Herbert for one, my Dad’s twin brother, who was from Leipzig not Alsace, but who was sent to Ukraine aged 18 – nothing was ever heard of him again).
The monument offers a fantastic view over the town (and makes it easy to see the old street patterns) and towards Mont Sainte-Odile. It’s also surrounded by vineyards, and our guide, Olivier, had us all taste the fruit, which was sweet and ripe and really tiny, being almost all pip and skin. It was a bit odd because you could almost sense the tannin in it as well. It was an interesting insight. The grapes he’d raided were Pinot Noir. He then went on to explain about how wine works in Alsace. It’s different to everywhere else in France, but then again French regions vary wildly anyway in what you can and can’t do as a winemaker. Alsace wine is mostly white and is the only Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée region in France to produce mostly varietal wines, typically from similar grape varieties to those used in German wine. Wines are produced as Alsace AOC (white, rosé and red wines), Alsace Grand Cru (white wines from 51 classified vineyards) and Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wines.
In 2006, vines were grown on 15,298 hectares (37,800 acres) in 119 villages in Alsace, and 111.3 million litres of wine was produced, corresponding to 148.4 million bottles of 750 ml, generating 478.8 million euro in revenue. 25% of the production is exported, and the largest export markets for in terms of volume are Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the United States. The geography of the wine growing area is determined by two main factors, the Vosges mountains in the west and the Rhine in the east, with the vineyards concentrated on a narrow strip running roughly north–south. The Vosges mountains provide shelter from rain and maritime influence, and the region is dry and sunny with Colmar being the driest city in France. The grape varieties they are permitted to use are Riesling, Sylvaner, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer for whites, with a couple of variants such as Klevener de Heiligenstein, and the only red grape is Pinot Noir.
Anyway we swiftly moved on from the memorial to the first of the three vineyards we’d be stopping off at Robert Blanck, who have been winemakers since 1732, using old-fashioned methods (no stainless steel tanks for them, thank you very much). We tried a number of wines, made a lot of notes, and then made enquiries about their opening hours so we could go back with the car. I wasn’t about to lug several boxes of wine around on the tram system, not matter how efficient it was. We would drive past the following day and pick up what we wanted in between doing some sightseeing. I was interested to note that they were members of the Vignerons indépendants de France, an organization that supports independent winemakers throughout France. Their members must respect their terroir, work and harvest their own vineyards, make and bottle their wine themselves and generally maintain viticultural traditions. Whatever their methods, they make some very good wines, and they provided a ridiculously generous tasting.
They also explained that, unlike in Bordeaux, Alsace barrels go on for years and years and years, because in the main they are not interested in using barrels that will hugely affect the taste of the wine, so new barrels are not something they are at all keen on. This would turn out to be significant information with regard to the second vineyard we went to. Some of the barrels in use are a couple of hundred years old, with some very fine decorative work. They also have the tiniest doors, which are used by the cellar masters to get inside the barrels when they need cleaning. You can’t be fat and be a cellar master it would seem.
Speaking of taste, our guide told us more about the wine in the barrel held by the Hôpital civil in Strasbourg. In their historic cellars there is what is believed to be the oldest wine barrel in the world, dating back to 1472. The cellar itself was built in 1395, and was needed because back then patients sometimes paid for their treatment by donating land, and around these parts much of that land would have vineyards on it. As wine was also used for medical purposes, wine cellars were common in hospitals, though of course there aren’t many left. This one even survived a fire that destroyed the rest of the hospital in 1716, and they simply rebuilt around the cellar.
The 1472 barrel is 450 litres in capacity and holds 350 litres of wine at present. This wine has only been tasted on rare occasions, in 1576 in honour of the delegation from Zurich that came to prove how quickly they could arrive to help their allies in Strasbourg (presumably in celebration of the centenary of the Hirsebreifahrt of 1476), in 1718 for the reconstruction of the main building after the fire, and in 1944 when Strasbourg was liberated during World War II. A select group of wine-makers are permitted to mature their wines in the cellars, where they are aged in oak barrels, a practice that is no longer common in Alsace. Profits from the sales of the 150,000 bottles of wine produced each year being used to purchase medical equipment.
Although it isn’t tasted, the wine was checked in 1994 to ensure it hadn’t turned to acid, as it would then no longer be considered wine. The wine is still technically wine, at least according to the oenologists from the interregional laboratory of the DGCCRF in Strasbourg. They said the wine “has a very beautiful bright, very amber color, a powerful nose, very fine, of a very great complexity, aromas reminiscent of vanilla, honey, wax, camphor, fine spices, hazelnut and fruit liquor”. However, I doubt anyone is ever going to be allowed to drink it so we’ll have to take their word for it.
Remaining on the subject of barrels, we now travelled on to the absurdly pretty little town of Dambach-la-Ville, which set off some excitable rushing about by the Japanese couples on the trip. Here we visited Famille Hauller. They have been in business since 1776, when François-Joseph Hauller, a master cooper, set up his workshop in Dambach-La-Ville. Eventually the family also started to make wine alongside making the barrels to keep wine in and then, finding that the market for barrels was limited by the fact that Alsace’s wine makers do not buy new barrels for reasons outlined earlier, shifted entirely to wine making by the end of the 20th century. He did first create a wonderful barrel for his wife…
Louis Hauller, the son of Léon Hauller, was the last master cooper in the family, and he was the one who made to move to make viticulture their core business in the 1970’s. He produced his first bottles which he sold directly to customers at wine fairs across France. Since then, Claude Hauller, his son joined the business in 1990, and while they still run the business, the next generation have now also joined in the shape of Claude’s sons, Ludovic and Guillaume. It was Ludovic, who looks after marketing, who showed us around and conducted the tasting, as well as showing us round the cooperage, where his grandfather seems to have amassed more tools than anyone could use in a lifetime.
We tasted a number of wines here too, though less than at Robert Blanck. We also had some further explanations around the making of wine (some people on the tour were starting from a position of considerably less knowledge than others, and our guide was brilliant at handling that). We learned more about the cleaning process by which every few years a residue that forms during the wine-making process is removed from the inside of the barrels. This is what can lead to sediment in bottles of wine, and is apparently sold on to various other industries. I’ve not been able to find out exactly what is done with it, but I’m sure if I keep digging, I’ll eventually get the information.
We again made notes of the wines, though I had to do it by photographing and remembering what we’d had. The tables in the tasting room were made out of old barrels, with racks of wine bottles lining the walls.
We tasted a Riesling Cuvée Prestige, a Riesling Grand Cru Frankstein, a Pinot Gris Cuvée Prestige and a Gewürztraminer Cuvée Prestige, and I would happily have bought several bottles of each. This would turn out to be rather too difficult to achieve, but I have them filed away in my mind for future trips or even buying online. It was now lunchtime, so we headed into Ribeauvillé, another of the picture postcard pretty towns that dot the Alsace wine route from top to bottom. After we’d grabbed the last parking place in town we headed off to find something to eat, taking our guide’s recommendation that we try out the historic Caveau de l’Ami Fritz for some proper local specialities.
It was utterly heaving outside in the garden and on the terrace so we made our way inside into the cool of the old cellars, and grabbed a table. It took quite a long time from ordering to the arrival of our food, but luckily we had a couple of hours to spare. We ordered a main course each and decided we didn’t need anything else. We’d seen the size of the portions…
Here are the liver dumplings that Lynne had.
And this is my Coq au Riesling (a leg thereof) cooked in Riesling with spaetzle.
And that’s before we talk about the bowl of potatoes that came with the dumplings…
Or the salad…
Suitably replete, we staggered out to rejoin our party, having run out of time to look around the town beyond a cursory look at the main street. We had one more wine grower to meet, the splendid Sylvie Spielmann, over in Bergheim.
Here there was much discussion or terroir, unavoidable given that the history of the domaine is linked to the old gypsum quarry which the family had mined for more than a century. For a century or so there were several quarries in the area, but the Spielmann family was the last to continue operating the quarry, while also starting wine growing. Later, Sylvie decided to fill in the old quarry and it now supports 8 hectares of vines from which she creates very fine wines that reflect the uncommon nature of that particular patch of vineyard. The other soils are the much heavier clay, marl and limestone and we were shown samples of each.
She also has two of the 51 grand cru vineyards, Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim and Grand Cru Kanzlerberg. Just to add to the fun there are also the Blosenberg and Engelgarten vineyards, which “possess particular qualities that merit a separate winemaking process”.
Although she’s been wine making for quite some time, she remains open to new ideas and in addition to becoming a certified organic producer, she’s also been experimenting with things like “orange” wines and natural wines. Sadly we didn’t get to taste any of those, though we did work our way through quite a lot of different wines. Again, we made a list, and checked that we could call back the following day to buy.
Right now the harvest was in full swing (it had been declared a couple of weeks earlier but that just means that people can start any time they want after that), there was bottling going on, and for good measure Sylvie was having to deal with a bunch of tourists who didn’t look like they were going to buy much (she’d get a pleasant surprise when we turned up the following day and bought 30 bottles including some very fine and quite expensive vendange tardives).
It was getting late-ish now and everyone seemed to be quite tired after all that tasting. I was grateful I didn’t need to drive and that we could again use the tram. Back in Alsace we called in at the gingerbread shop and the chocolate shop to buy some presents for people, including us, and then caught the tram back to Illkirch-Grafenstaden. We stopped at the supermarket on the way and bought some duck parmentier for dinner before retreating to the apartment where we dined on that, along with the previous day’s bretzels and some on the cheese leftover from the ferry trip. We drank a local Pinot Noir and started packing up ready to move on the following morning.