A pleasant drive through Alsatian countryside, starting in Strasbourg and following the 'Route des Vins,' with an expert guide driving and stopping every now and then to share some wine and learn from the winemaker.
A pleasant way to spend a September day in France, even if you're not a real oenophile.
And that's us. We're not serious wine-drinkers, but we enjoy an occasional glass; we try to take notes to help us find our personal favorites again. So if you're expecting a detailed review with expert (and sometimes fanciful-sounding) wine descriptions, pour a glass and move on!
Our tour was led by Pauline, from Ophorus Tours in Strasbourg. Unlike our tour of picturesque villages a few days before, this time we had several fellow-travelers, which always makes good opportunities for conversation and sharing experiences.
The 'Route des Vins,' by the way, is not all that old a tradition, while the practice of winemaking in the rich valley between the Rhine and the Vosges goes back well before Roman times.
But after World War II, with the area's economy struggling to recover and wine exports just starting to rise again, a brilliant marketing effort invented the Route as a way to bring visitors to the small villages and wineries to buy wine and spend money on meals and lodging.
Our first stop was at Domaine Noëlle Bachert, in the village of Barr. It's a small winery (all but one of the ones we visited were) run by a woman, unusual in the trade. After having a look around the grounds, including our first face-to-face with crushed grapes (not so pretty!). we sat in a pleasant garden to try the wines..
One of the first new things we learned is that almost no vintner in the area owns a whole vineyeard—they all own sections in numbers of vineyards, which not only gives them access to a variety of grapes, but helps avoid disaster if one field fails. Each field has its own characteristics or 'terroir' and factors such as elevation, drainage, soil and direction are important.
And we learned that designations such as Grand Cru belong to the field, not the wine. Only 51 fields in all of Alsace are designated Grand Cru. And we learned that what's left after the juice is pressed from the grapes goes to make methane and fertilizer.
Among the more unusual wines at Bachert are several labeled 'Duo de Pinots,' which are made from two grapes, blanc and noir, grown in the same field togerther. They're the only blended still wine that's allowed to be made in Alsace.
A more committed wine-drinker than I would have absorbed many more details about the classifications of Alsatian wines. But I was interested to learn that grapes from older vines produce deeper flavors; Bachert had several 'Reserve' wines like that, and that Pinot Gris from Alsace is definitely joining Riesling on my personal favorites list.
These two are made with Klevener grapes, a variety of pink grapes that, according to the rules, can only be grown in a small number of fields in and around Heiligenstein, the next village up the road, about 2 km away.
Our next stop was in Dambach-le-Ville, home of the Schaeffer-Woerly winery, which turned 70 last year. But Maxime, one of the owners, who greeted us is far younger—that's him, with Pauline—but conscious of his family's history, reflected in the display of old wine-makers' tools and scenes on the walls.
Maxime's winery produces only organic (or 'bio') wines. The installation is small, but modern with gleaming equipment, but some old-style traditions and necessities.
For instance, those wonderful old oak casks where the wine is stored as it ages, need to be cleaned periodically, and there's only one way to do it: by hand, with a brush and water and a scraper. Traditionally that was done by child labor, but these days, it's Maxime who squeezes into that small 'door' at the bottom of the barrel and does the job.
Some of the barrels are over 150 years old. And these are not the largest; there are some that can hold 10,000 bottles. Maxime also told us that when barrels were in very short supply just after World War II, a number of companies made huge concrete barrels, lined with glass, to get back into production.
Our last stop was in Riquewihr, population almost 1500—almost a metropolis compared to the other towns we stopped in! It's the home of Dopff au Moulin, a leading (they would say the leading) producer of Crémant, an Alsatian sparkling wine made using the same method as for Champagne.
And thereby hangs the tale. The Dopff family has been making wine for 13 generations. Five generations ago, Julien Dopff, went to Paris for the 1900 Universal Exposition, saw how the world valued Champagne, and went home to begin producing it in what was then German territory. As a technically German Champagne, it avoided the high tariffs on French products.
But after World War I, Alsace was returned to France, and the French 1905 law that restricted the name to products of the Champagne region, a new name was needed, and and old term, Crémant was adopted. In the 1970s, Crémant was restricted to three newly-created AOC designations for Alsace, for Bourgogne and for the Loire Valley.
All that in the past, the present brought us tastes of several of Dopff's Crémants d'Alsace, made from a variety of local wines. Sadly, I must report that I'm still not a real fan of good sparkling wines, although my wife enoyed them. I must be a peasant at heart.
If you're interested in a tour like ours, they're offered in a variety of half-day and full-day configurations, starting in Strasbourg or Colmar. We booked ours through Viator, always a convenient way to find locally-operated tours without having to guess!