Alsace: Layover Edition
Our trip to Alsace could be done over a long layover, although it’s practically impossible since the nearest major airport is three hours away. Spent (mostly) eating and drinking, we also learned a ton about the people, their wines and the region. Here’s a glimpse into the 24 hours we were there.
We had finished everything we had wanted to accomplish for now on Johannes’ family’s property at the Mosel Valley just in time to make an appointment with Domaine Loew in Alsace, approximately 25 km outside of Strasbourg. It would be a quick trip so we hit the road around 8am to make the 3-hour journey there.
The winegrowing region of Alsace lies in the eastern corner of France close to the German border and is about twice as long as Napa Valley, but just as wide. The Vosges Mountains lie to the east. You may recognize this name from wine barrels, as the forests here are famous for French Oak exports. Alsatian wines are diversely white, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and as for reds, only Pinot Noir. French wine law says all wines must be bottled in Alsatian style bottles, even Pinot Noir.
Driving through Alsace, one is never sure if he is in Germany or France. The red roofs and French grammar may be a giveaway, but towns named Marlenheim, or Kayserberg, causes a second look. Alsace was lost and won a number of times during the World Wars, traded between Germany and France. One generation speaks fluent German, the next fluent French. Most understand at least a bit of their non-native language. The cuisine is neither French nor German, but Alsatian. Flammkuchen, an onion tart on thin pastry dishes, may look German by name, but replace the traditional German Emmentaler cheese with local Muenster or chèvre et voilà, c’est Francais.
Alsace is beautiful and there is a certain “Gemülichkeit” (untranslatable German for warm and cozy feeling). It’s one of the driest winegrowing regions in France, especially of the northerly winegrowing regions, that the sunny days and wine culture make it easy to get around from one quaint little town to the next.
From the main route, you can see to the right, if coming from the north, scattered villages laid out just a few kilometers from each other. There is a more romantic drive that connects them, away from the freeway, the scenic wine route. Having a few points of interest in mind, we made a b-line for Ribeauvillé, home of Trimbach et Fils.
If ever a restaurant or wine list in the States offers a selection of Alsatian wines , Trimbach is most likely included. With over a million bottles in production, this is one of, if not the most widely distributed Alsatian producer – not just in the U.S. but worldwide. The wines are good, consistent and one vineyard makes some truly exceptional wine – Clos St. Hune. The winery is open daily for tasting but firmly closes between 12 and 1:30pm for lunch, very important in Europe. Lucky for us, we were there just in time.
Six bottles later, we headed to Riquewihr, a 16th century walled village, much of which was spared from WWII and therefore preserved save for the wild primary colors between the half-timbered shops and homes. We tasted at Dopff & Irion, a larger winery and recommendation by Wine Enthusiast. Great wines again and starting at only 7.50 Euro.
The brötchen we had for breakfast was wearing off and we had seen a cute bistro with sunny patio on our way back to Ribeauvillé. It was past lunchtime so only Flammkuchen was offered. Perfect. Add a glass each of Riesling and Sylvaner and we were set until dinner.
Next was our appointment with Domaine Loew. Set on the border of Alsace, Westhoffen is not on the main wine route. It’s more than worth the detour as Etienne farms biodynamically and his wines are a very pure expression of Terroir. Because Alsace is relatively dry, farming organically or biodynamically is not as challenging as it is in wetter regions and almost 15% of Alsatian wineries farm this way. Wines can be harvested later and made dry, often without development of botrytis. Alcohol potential can easily reach 14% (not that it always should, but it’s definitely possible). There is a certain depth that comes with making biodynamic wines. Some of Domaine Loew’s wines ferment for months or even years, slowly developing and cultivating complexity.
Much later that evening, after a bit of aimless driving, we stumbled into Marlenheim, just in time to check into a hostellerie.
The cute town was shutting down fast and we were hungry. We saw a group of friends in work clothes gather outside at a corner restaurant down the street. They were still there when we strolled to the restaurant– good sign! We walked in two minutes after closing to find a beautifully upscale restaurant, with most guests in suit and tie. Briefly considering our dress, our hunger prevailed and we asked if they would still serve. The kitchen replied: “Oui.” Hooray! We quickly ordered – Johannes the Canard au l’orange and me the salad entrée avec foie gras and frog legs (we think). Delicious. Wow! All the suits and ties had just barely left when we finished and Chef and cook came out of the kitchen for a beer. When settling up the bill we got to chatting about the restaurant, why we’re visiting Alsace, American politics and Facebook. Relais des Saveurs is just two years old but doing very well. The Alsace region has 27 Michelin-starred restaurants. We anticipated this might be another one within not too long.
On our way out the next morning, we stopped into a Boulangerie for the obligatory Croissant au Chocolat and a couple petit cafes to get us going. Parfait!