In Alsace

Red stone French church in foreground among vineyards with mountains in back.
photo credit Shutterstock

The ancient injunction to keep your friends close and your enemies closer is all very well, but in Alsace it can be hard to tell the two apart. Control of the region has swung between Germany and France like a pendulum, and the Protestantism of the one and Catholicism of the other has caused generations of religious dissidents to flee west and east respectively, to halt by the great Vosges mountains and settle on the swathe of land beside the Rhine. Which, it turned out, might have been a problematic spot in political terms, but was an ideal place to plant vines. 

Not that it has proved possible to separate the wine from the politics, both encroaching countries being major wine producers themselves. Just across the river from Baden and the Pfalz, Alsatian vineyards have suffered at points from German anxiety about competition or, once phylloxera arrived, disease: vines on great sites were forcibly pulled up to assuage the one, hybrids planted to prevent the other — while the problems of adjusting to different national tastes was pithily summed up by the President of the Strasbourg Chamber of Commerce. In 1920, two years after Alsace was returned to France, as the area struggled to repair war-damaged vineyards and adjust to a new currency, a new set of rules, and a market unused to drinking Riesling, he remarked that French consumers did not buy Alsatian wines, finding them “too green, too acidic, and too costly.” 

And then there is language. I was startled, at a tasting long ago at Domaine Albert Boxler, to hear one of the assembled winemakers say that the last three generations of his family each had a different first language: Alsatian for the grandparents, German for the parents, while he was Francophone. Under those circumstances, what is a mother tongue — or, for that matter, a motherland?

It is a question close to my heart. My own mother’s first language was Yiddish: her parents were drummed out of Poland during the Holocaust, the only survivors of their respective families, and refused ever to speak Polish again. They ended up in Australia, where I remember my grandmother’s heavy accent when she spoke English. Poland was a place she had travelled nearly 10,000 miles to escape and yet returned to every time she opened her mouth.

So the problems of being neither quite one thing nor another, of provoking wariness in people who cannot quite classify you (and may not understand you), feel familiar to me. Maybe that’s why, despite roaming the world’s vineyards, I have always had a special fondness for Alsace. It doesn’t hurt that the Rieslings are electric, the soils an insane jumble of schist, granite, limestone, and the degraded seashells from ancient seas known as Muschelkalk, and the villages almost miraculously pretty. In summer 2020, as our modern incarnation of the Plague sealed borders and quieted the chatter of ordinary existence, I was able to cross the Vosges mountains from my home in Burgundy, and take advantage of a brief moment when pandemic strictures were relaxed and French hotels and restaurants allowed to open as long as everyone was rigorously masked and frantically sanitizing. The Alsatians took these rules in their stride. They have seen worse.

The problems of being neither quite one thing nor another, of provoking wariness in people who cannot quite classify you (and may not understand you), feel familiar to me. Maybe that’s why, despite roaming the world’s vineyards, I have always had a special fondness for Alsace.

Driving in from the west, my husband and I paused briefly at the 13th-century Cordeliers chapel in Sarrebourg. Here Marc Chagall, a Russian Jew who fled revolution only to encounter a different kind of mortal danger in war-stricken France, created a building-sized stained-glass window of breathtaking beauty in pulsating deep blues and reds. The window is called Peace (or The Tree of Life), which felt like a topic for our time.

The vast gulf of meaning that can exist between peace and quiet was also in evidence in Wingen-sur-Moder in the Lower Rhine, where we spent our first Alsatian night. René Lalique’s steep-roofed, half-timbered residence is now luxurious accommodation and a Michelin-starred restaurant, sheltered within a tranquil private forest. Lalique established his factory nearby because all the ingredients for making great glass and crystal were available here: wood, water, sand, ferns for potash, and skilled workers. He lived on this six-hectare estate because there is nothing about the process of glassmaking that is conducive to contemplation or creativity.

With its vegetable garden, beehives, and forested cycle paths, this place is a haven. Lalique was freed to dream up the marvellous vases, jewellery, perfume bottles, and more that are now on show in the Lalique Museum down the road; and I was offered access to a different kind of treasure.

The restaurant’s immense wine cellar is overseen by Romain Iltis, who looks too young to have won France’s Best Sommelier in 2012 and has, since 2015, held the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. (His father, an Alsatian baker, is also a MOF.) Romain gave us the kind of wine tasting I had missed so badly during the preceding few months: intellectual, educational, and delicious. “I really wanted to look at terroir in depth,” he said, and of course depth is precisely what terroir is: time crumbled into fragments that nonetheless sustain the world. 

He had a sophisticated theory about vertical versus horizontal wines: the former from granite, sandstone, schist, or volcanic soil, lively, mineral and linear; the latter from sedimentary soils such as marl, clay, or limestone, lusher and fuller-bodied. This is certainly one way to deal with Alsace’s riot of soil types. Long before political disruption came geological upheaval — earthquakes, grabens, the shifting of tectonic plates — that formed the Vosges Mountains, which shelter the region from the rain that descends on Baden.

Romain’s schema made more sense when I realized that his vertical soils are found on the steep hillsides of the Vosges, while the sedimentary terroir nearer the Rhine tends to fall into his horizontal category. But I was more interested in the compulsion to classify this way — A or B, black or white — than in the classifications themselves.

Tasting between different soil types is easy in Alsace, which is almost entirely single varietal wines: there is Pinot Gris and Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner, but the Riesling and Pinot Noir are especially expressive, and one of these days I’m going to try them alongside the German versions across the border, for an even broader and deeper understanding of the area. Almost the only winemaker who prefers to blend is Jean-Michel Deiss of Domaine Marcel Deiss. “Riesling is like a straitjacket!” he announced, before expounding another binary theory of wine — this one on Catholic versus Protestant soils. I listened, with a growing sense of wonder, as he talked of making wine from vines grown on granite, tasting it and thinking, “now I understand the Reformation!”

In the Alsatian dialect, the phrase for talking naturally is ‘Red wie d’r de Schnawel gewachse isch!’ (‘Speak the way your beak has grown on you!’). Deiss appears to have taken this advice. But here, everyone’s beak seems to grow around the many invisible faultlines — geographical, linguistic, and religious. The result could be fractious but isn’t: our polarized society could learn a lot from a place so tolerant that at least one church (within the Rosacker Grand Cru, beside Trimbach’s famous Clos Ste Hune vineyard) offers both Protestant and Catholic services. I never once inquired, but I can tell you that the Hugels in Riquewihr are Lutherans while the village of Eguisheim, 20 minutes’ drive south, is historically Catholic. When winemakers convert from one faith to the other, winemaker Rolly Gassmann told me, the wine changes, too!

Here, everyone’s beak seems to grow around the
many invisible faultlines —
geographical, linguistic, and religious.
The result could be fractious but isn’t.

On a sparklingly clear day, I drove up the steep slope from Eguisheim to Husseren-les-Châteaux, jumping out to snap a hilltop picture of the ridiculously picturesque village behind me. After the vertical view, I descended into Vœgtlinshoffen for the horizontal: from Belvedere, the bar atop the Joseph Cattin winery, the Black Forest appeared close enough to reach across and pluck a leaf or two. With the wonderfully named Anaïs Sirop, who married into the 12th generation of Cattins, I ate a fine selection of charcuterie and drank their Riesling Hatschbourg 2018, a lovely wine with slicing acidity.

“This village was bombed twice,” Anaïs told me, once in each world war: it turns out that a close-up view of your neighbors isn’t always an advantage. (Listen, Frederic Hugel had told me the day before, as we tasted through a selection of his wines, in 1865 we were Hugel. In 1907, Hügel. Now we are Hugel again. We fought two world wars over an umlaut!) I sat and sipped my wine, thinking about dangers old and new, and felt pleasantly if perversely safe. 

And yet the next challenge is already upon the hardy Alsatians and it has nothing to do with bombs or airborne viruses. Humanity is the parasite here. Siblings Thomas and Veronique Muré are combating climate change via biodynamics but also via sacrilege: they have planted Syrah vines. This, in an area where even Pinot Noir, the historic red variety, has only had Grand Cru status since 2022, and then only for two of its 51 Grands Crus, but the Syrah gives them precious extra ripening time: “We want to keep freshness and acidity and three extra weeks make a big difference.” They love their Pinots and their whites — and so do I, particularly those from the famed 12 hectares of Clos Saint Landelin — but, they say, they must have a solution to the rising temperatures. I was very impressed by that Syrah, but I hope they don’t end up having to abandon their sparkling wines — historically, a solution to the opposite climate issue, where grapes in cooler regions won’t ripen sufficiently. 

The Murés, like the Cattins, are 12th generation, so they take the long view. As I met family after winemaking family of astonishing longevity — Philippe Blanck of Paul Blanck is the 19th generation, while Jean Trimbach’s family have been here since 1626 — I began to sense another set of oppositions, between the entrenched families and the villages that seem unaltered since the Middle Ages on the one hand, and shifting circumstances on the other. There is a delicate calibration here, between tradition and change. That is true elsewhere, of course: it’s one of the many challenges of winemaking. But it is especially noticeable among these picture-perfect hamlets. 

It can’t be easy to be told to be a good German one minute and a proud French citizen the next. “The Alsatian dialect has been lost, it was martyred by the French,” Philippe Blanck told me gloomily: after World War II, anyone with an Alsatian accent was told to speak God’s own language properly, although four years earlier the Germans had banned all things French. “Vous preferez les vins droits ou caressants [do you prefer your wines linear or soft]?” Philippe asked, then drove us through the cool woods to La Rochette. The staff brought out strangely shaped glasses, bulbous at the bottom, and fed us dishes of homemade noodles and matelote (river fish in a white wine sauce) while Philippe poured his 2017 Rosenbourg Riesling and 2016 Patergarten Pinot Blanc, both as forthright as their maker.

We ate well all the time in Alsace, at every level from meat we cooked over a public grill to fine dining.
And of course, we drank brilliantly,
wines that glow as brightly in my memory as the
deep blues and reds of Chagall’s stained glass.

We ate well all the time in Alsace, at every level from meat we cooked over a public grill to fine dining at Jean-Luc Brendel’s extraordinary Michelin-starred La Table du Gourmet, where the ingredients all come from his vast kitchen garden outside the village walls. And of course, we drank brilliantly, wines — droits or caressants, vertical or horizontal, Protestant or Catholic or for that matter, white or red — that glow as brightly in my memory as the deep blues and reds of Chagall’s stained glass. And these were just some of the unexpected encounters on that magical trip.

Alsace gave me back the serendipity I had been missing so badly in our enforced seclusion: delicious food with surprising ingredients, Pinot Noirs that tasted of cherries, the largest, most enticing fennel bulb I have ever seen in Brendel’s garden, perhaps the oldest foudre in the world (built in 1715) in the Hugel winery. Petit-Jean, young and enthusiastic chef-patron of the superb Maison Rouge in Colmar, recounted the joys of scrubbing girolle mushrooms; Alain Beydon-Schlumberger of Domaine Schlumberger balanced, utterly unphased, on the precipitous edge of his Kitterlé Grand Cru vineyard, which is known as “the calf breaker” because of the steepness of its slopes, while informing me that he gets vertigo standing on a stool. 

At La Table du Gourmet, the young sommelier, Anne Humbrecht (daughter of another famous winemaker) offered me a beautiful Sommerberg Grand Cru Riesling made by the Hebinger family; the next day, coming out of a much bigger winery, I spotted their discreet sign and managed to finagle myself in to taste, and buy, more of this tiny biodynamic producer’s wines. They are relative newcomers here, only in situ since 1942, but they too have a granite determination to meet the challenges of the terroir. “Nature is showing us a changing face, and our trials are different from those of previous generations,” Denis Hebinger mused. They are trying to adjust — “to ensure we do not remain indifferent to anything or anyone.” Indifference is not, in any case, the Alsatian way. In the glass and beyond it, they seek a delicate calibration of verve and grace, because nobody — not even Chagall! — better understands the connection between equilibrium and peace.  

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