I recently fulfilled a dream I’ve had for years: I spent 6 days in Alsace, hiking through the area of the Alsatian wine route. Despite some wet weather, it was wonderful. The days were spent hiking through vineyards, small medieval towns and up to castles on hilltops. And, of course, these days were followed by evenings of wine drinking.
When I mentioned that I would be doing this a lot of my friends weren’t really clear on where Alsace is. There is a good historical reason for that – Alsace’s history and location have made it the province of different countries over the past centuries. Even the name of the main city, Strasbourg, gives a hint about it. Strasbourg basically means city of streets, and it is the meeting place of many main roads across the European continent.
The Romans first conquered the region in 58 BC, and since then ownership has been traded like baseball cards. By the late medieval period Strasbourg was a wealthy free city, and lots of small villages sprung up in Alsace with both French and German influences. It is now French, and is located in the northwest corner of the country.
Enough with the social studies lesson; time to show you why I thought this would be the perfect place to hike for a few days. Alsace has gently rolling hills covered with vineyards, and every 15 minutes or so I’d see another charming old fortified town in the distance or a mountaintop ruined castle.
There are forests, old churches, colorful, pretty buildings, and, of course, vineyards. The hiking paths are very well signposted (there are 47 different paths from which you can choose in the area) and take you through the vineyards and the picturesque towns. The paths are well kept, and I felt totally safe walking alone. And hey, after 5-6 hours of walking, I felt no guilt about drinking lots of wine! (Note to health buffs: this is how one goes on a hiking vacation and comes back without having lost a single pound.)
Most of the small towns have wine cellars and tasting rooms which are open most of the year. You’ll often end up talking to the producer of the wine himself (these are still mostly men). This is really fun, and is a case where it helps to speak French (although definitely not always necessary – I don’t speak it myself), because these people can be a wealth of information about the different wines and the methods for making them.
Here is a quick primer on Alsatian wine. There are seven grape varieties: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir (the only red). The whites wines are generally light, fruity and sometimes a bit on the sweet side. Riesling from Alsace is dryer (less sweet) than that from Germany. Gewurztraminer is fruity and aromatic, and often sweet. Muscat is almost more of an aperitif, with a sweet fruitiness that is a lovely on its own.
But even with this particular wine, those from the southern end of the wine route tend to be different from those from the north. Oak barrels are seldom used, so you get a very true taste of each grape without the ‘oakiness’ you find in some other wines. If you feel like a bubbly, try Cremant d’Alsace — their version of champagne. The Alsatian wines you are most likely to see in the U.S. are Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc. In Alsace, these varieties are usually served in a distinctive green-stemmed glass.
The lightness of the wines in this region tends to counterbalance the heavy foods that are the specialties. This is where the German influence really shows. The area is probably best known for choucroute – basically a pile of potatoes, various meats, and sauerkraut. Another popular item is tarte flambee (or flammekueche) which is a sort of pizza-like rectangle covered in cream with cheese and pork. With foods like that something crisp and a clean-flavored helps lighten things up a little.
If you want to try some Alsatian wine without the price of an airline ticket, it should be very easy. These are some of the best-known wines in the world. Southern Season’s wine department will have some, as will most of the local wine shops (this isn’t the time for Harris Teeter or Trader Joes – as useful as those wine sections can be). The wine is nice for sipping chilled on the porch, and goes well with spicy foods.
If you are interested in finding out more, check out the website for Alsatian Wines: http://www.vinsalsace.com/en/