Alsace is an odd region. Tossed between France and Germany for a few hundred years, it’s a little bit of both and neither. It’s mainly known for its wine, choucroute, and as the spiritual home of the great Parisian brasseries, established by Alsatian refugees in the Nineteenth Century. Despite its traumatic history, the region has a chain of dozens of perfectly preserved medieval villages and towns, stretched at intervals of a few kilometres along the 180km Route Des Vins between Strasbourg and Colmar. We used Colmar as our base for exploring the biggest cluster of villages which ring around the city over three days. Alsace can be more than a little bit twee at times, but when you are walking around the empty streets of a perfectly preserved medieval village like Bergheim or sitting in a vineyard watching storks swoop among the vines, it feels like stepping back into another age. It’s also a dream come true for anyone who is really interested in wine.
I have to say that Alsace was not the culinary destination I had hoped for.I have read a lot about the amazing Alsatian food culture but didn’t see much evidence of it. In Colmar, we struggled to find a restaurant that served anything other than overpriced choucroute and tarte flambé. There is only so much sauerkraut a person can take, and I had expected a mix of traditional and more innovative spots, but didn’t find them. A lot of our meals ended up being in our apartment and comprised of local Munster cheese, terrines and rilletes bought from local shops together with baguettes. This is pretty much my dream meal, and handy for the budget, but not what serious foodies might be looking for on holidays.
Colmar is not your typical city break kind of city, it is quiet with no cafe/bar culture of note. Despite both France and Germany being known for this, it seems to have bypassed Alsace. Except for a few dodgy looking clubs and Irish pubs, Colmar is deserted after dinnertime. There is a strange reluctance about local wine. Restaurants rarely tell you anything more about the wine they serve than the grape variety, and we found one wine bar in the whole city.
This is maybe because Alsace seems to have a very casual relationship to wine. In all my travelling in France, Italy and Spain, I have never seen a place where wine is so much a part of the fabric of the region. Everyone makes it. Really, truly everyone. We passed through villages where every second house was selling its own bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. All of the land, from small gardens, to the hillsides and fields between villages, is covered in vines. Any notion you have of wine tasting as an elite activity will be put to rest pretty quickly when you taste a glass of cremant given to you by a man in mud covered wellies, which you enjoy with a view of his tractor. Wine making is very traditional here, with most winemakers being the same family operation that has been around for hundreds of years, and outsiders frowned upon. With all that in mind, here are a few of the things we picked up from our trip:
This was the meal of the trip. Foie gras tarte flambé. It was everything I never knew I wanted. The restaurant is attached to a butchers shop on one of the main squares in Eguisheim with a view of a church spire with nesting storks who periodically swoop over the square. There is a large terrace to sit and enjoy the food with a glass of local wine. Tarte flambé is an Alsatian pizza dish made with creme fraiche, onions and lardons of bacon that is served absolutely everywhere. Here it was served with chunks of pan fried foie gras, many many many pieces of foie gras, far more than should be possible for the price of 14 euros. It should have been too much, and for lesser mortals, it might be. But for me, it was perfection. Himself had an equally excellent pie of duck confit, foie gras and cepes (also 14 euros) which could also be bought to bring home from the butcher shop. We genuinely contemplated cycling out across the fields from Colmar to Eguisheim again that night to go again, before discovering it only opens during the day, and was closed the following two days.
This was the one wine bar we found in Colmar, located up a dark windy cobbled road that was completely deserted. They have lots of Alsatian wines by the glass and bottle, and a selection of small plates for around 10 euro to go alongside. You have to order something small to eat to order wine, it seems to be a licensing requirement. We ordered a charcuterie plate and a vegetarian plate, and two glasses of white wine from Eguisheim. It’s a cosy, friendly kind of place to while away an evening and try some great local wines.
Another restaurant attached to a butchers shop, we almost didn’t go in due to the deeply tacky decor, as exemplified by the white glitter stag who presided over our meal from a window ledge. They serve a reasonably priced selection of local specialties with a few bistro classics thrown in to the mix. While my rabbit leg with mustard was fairly average, the steak tartare with frites that himself ordered was perfect. It was served as a generous helping of freshly chopped, grassy beef topped with an egg yolk, and surrounded by baby gem leaves filled with chopped cornichons, capers and shallots, so you could mix it up exactly how you wanted. There is a canal side terrace that was too cold when we visited, but would be perfect in summer if you want to escape the watchful gaze of the nine plaster of paris wild boar who adorn the main dining room.
Almost every village we went to had dozens of winemakers offering wine tasting. This can be literally in a shed next to someones house, or a proper bar. Usually you wander in to an empty room and wait for someone to realise you are there. With one notable exception in Eguisheim, you won’t be charged for tasting 2-3 types of wine, but etiquette dictates that you should buy a bottle at the end. The average price for a bottle of Riesling or Pinot Blanc is usually about 7 euro, with late harvest (Vendange Tardive) Riesling and Gewurtztraminer going up to the mid twenties and beyond. Edelzwicker, a random blend of leftover grapes usually used by Alsatians for cooking with, is best avoided.
The best wine tasting experience we had was at Achille Thirion, in the cave on the edge of Orschwiller (they also have a shop in the centre of Saint Hippolyte). We spent almost an hour there being guided through the entirety of their wine list by a lovely sommelier from Quebec, who gave us an amazing overview of how wine-making in Alsace works, the subtle differences between the grapes at different elevations and the harvests. We ended up leaving with about ten bottles to bring home with us. Another lovely one to visit is Bruno Sorg, a slightly pricier (although still very reasonable) cave in a sixteenth century courtyard in Equisheim, that had a wonderful Gewurtztraminer. Domaine Hueber et Fils, on the Rue de Colmar between Beblenheim and Riquewihr, offered some lovely pinot noir, to the soundtrack of some truly awful house music and a snoring Alsatian dog.
Villages to visit
The villages are usually only two or three kilometres apart, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Our favourites from the trip were largely the predictable tourist ones like Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr. If you are in high season I imagine they are swarmed with other visitors, so quieter villages could be worth exploring. Bergheim is a medieval walled town near Ribeauville with some interesting looking restaurants (they were all closed when we visited), and a ring of kitchen gardens below the walls. Mittelbergheim seemed more like a hilltop village in Provence, with a long street of peaches and cream coloured house. It also appeared to have the highest concentration of wine producers of any village. Barr had a lovely feel of faded grandeur, although it was a complete ghost town when we visited on a Saturday afternoon, with a single bakery providing the only sign of life while its restaurants and shops remained closed.
The Route Des Vins has an accompanying cycle path with good signposting, that goes along smaller roads and lanes off the main route. Most of the villages are mainly at the base of the foothills, so the cycle routes are quite easy for beginners to manage, with very gentle slopes and a lot of flat stretches. Cycling also means you can actually drink some of the wine you are tasting, without resorting to the inelegant spit bucket discretely placed on the side of the bar. Eguisheim is a completely flat 7km cycle from Colmar, but we also made it as far as Riquewihr, which was a little more challenging at 25 km with a steep final ascent. We rented city bikes from Velodocteurs at Colmar train station for €8 per day.
Things to avoid
Visiting between October-April – We went in March and it very much felt off season. We went through entire towns where every restaurant, cafe and shop was closed, on a Saturday afternoon. While it was evocative to walk through deserted villages, it was also annoying if you wanted to actually see and do anything in particular. The tourist towns like Kayserberg and Ribeauville were still busy but a lot of smaller villages were just completely closed down.While I think it probably gets very busy in summer, there would definitely be more to see and do in April/May or September/October than off season.
Sundays and Mondays – Everything but the most touristy of tourist shops shuts. Restaurants, shops, supermarkets, museums, towns. Everything. The only exception to this is specially designated tourist towns like Eguisheim and Ribeauville.
Obernai – I do not understand how this town is listed in all the guides, it was charmless and filled with tacky souvenir shops, with none of the beauty of places like Riquewihr or Eguisheim.