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I don't say everyone loves it, but you feel there's a soul to Alsace," says Catherine Faller, adding,"It doesn't leave anyone indifferent." Outside the windows at Domaine Weinbach—one of the great connoisseurs' secrets of the wine world and the winery run by Faller, her sister, and their mother—the soft autumn light has taken on a halolike luminosity, gilding the rust-and-gold grapevines that festoon the surrounding slopes. Just down the road, the vine rows lap right up against the crenelated tower of the fortress of Kaysersberg ("Emperor's Mountain"), a photo-op ruin perched above a tour-bus-arresting medieval village of half-timbered houses bedecked with flowers. No, Alsace won't leave you indifferent. Disoriented, maybe.
Alsace is one of those regions of France—Brittany and Corsica are two others—where French culture is more or less firmly veneered over a stubborn, older tradition that insists on its own food and wine, language, and folkways. A fertile plain about 100 miles long and 20 miles wide stretched between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River, Alsace has had the historical misfortune of being too bountiful, too hardworking, too well located. Germany and France have wrested the little region away from one another time and again for centuries. It came into French possession in 1697, was subsequently torn away again several times, and finally landed back with France after a bitter skirmish during World War II.
Domaine Weinbach exemplifies the resulting mélange. Like all Alsatian wineries, it bottles what are called "German wines in a French style," meaning Rieslings and Gewürztraminers vinified to be generally drier and more full-bodied and richly perfumed than the standard variety. Weinbach has knowledgeable devotees around the globe, but it stands somehow outside the mainstream of appreciation, certainly in the United States. Like Alsace and its wines, Catherine Faller is in a way both transnational and very local. As a cosmopolitan businesswoman, Faller speaks French and German plus English. As a girl of her village, she understands the Alsatian dialect, a folk German you hear everywhere in shops and winstubs, the traditional wine pubs.
Alsace doesn't so much embody Franco-German cultural contradictions as pile them on. It ceases to surprise you, for example, that restaurant decors combine the elegant silk banquette fabrics of a fashionable Paris dining room with cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes nailed to the wall. If German tourists are clearly regarded as foreign visitors, Alsatians also hold apart those people on the other side of the Vosges, referred to as les Français intérieurs, meaning the remainder of the French nation.
Not surprisingly, Alsatians tend to look weary when asked whether they feel "more French or more German." Inevitably the answer is: We are Alsatian.
Alsace is not the France of berets, boules, and sidewalk tables with Pernod umbrellas—its imagery is in fact not even part of most Americans' mental travelogues. Try this one: Is Kugelhopf a) the château of the old Dukes of Alsace, b) the celebration of the completed wine harvest, or c) a molded raisin cake? Spend any time here, and you'll know it's the cake, a part of Alsace's bewildering panoply of local breads, pastries, and desserts.
You return home from Alsace with a different vision of France: hilltop castles and tile-roofed villages laced with streams and canals; Heidi-like vistas and vertiginous mountain pastures in the Vosges; the graceful, prosperous, intriguing city of Strasbourg. Alsace embraces culinary palaces like the Michelin-three-star Au Crocodile and Auberge de l'Ill—the region's restaurants are said to total more Michelin stars than anywhere else but Paris—and easygoing local places that serve everything from pike-perch, a member of the perch family with delicate white flesh, to venison over choucroute, the sauerkraut that is the pasta of Alsace.
The twin poles of Alsace are chic, northern Strasbourg, one of the capitals of the new Europe, and folksy southern Colmar, the capital of the Alsatian wine tradition. They are only about an hour and a half apart on the autoroute, or a day-long meander along the lovely Route du Vin, a mostly two-lane road that threads like a vein through the heart of Alsace.
An autumn arrival at either town puts you in after the tourist rush—which can be fierce—and connects you to the season of harvest and the year's freshly prepared sauerkraut and game. This is the time to eat sanglier (wild boar) with choucroute and savor a rich Pinot Gris. In fact, cool weather suits Alsace, a place that seems associated with the nostalgic smell of wood smoke.
A fall afternoon in the old quarter of Strasbourg finds the restaurant Au Crocodile decked out for the season, with ruddy grapevine leaves draped from the faux skylight and curling around an autumnal display of carved pigeons covered in seed. The great restaurant's two sleek rooms could feel formidably stuffy, with their apricot raw silk wallcoverings and orange lamps discreetly illuminating the well-spaced tables. But it's hard to feel stiff when you are greeted in the foyer by a giant embalmed alligator, and in the main room by a rollicking 19th-century oil painting of party-hearty peasants.
"I am not so interested in my own 'new taste,' " chef Emile Jung will tell me after the meal. "The difference here is mostly in execution, not components." Au Crocodile is, after all, an institution, and it wouldn't do to shock the Euro-diplomats and financiers who frequent the place. But don't mistake steadfast for boring. What Jung calls his down-home, "direct" cooking results in dishes—from simple shredded radishes to complex, slow-cooked venison with woodland mushrooms—that have ringingly true tastes of their ingredients. At his best, Jung evokes intense flavors without a feeling of weight, coaxing an ultra-refinement from Alsatian preparations without leaving behind their original comfort-food appeal.
Our meal that day was what Jung called "an imaginary voyage" in honor of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a student in the city 250 years before. It was launched with a braised suckling pig with duck foie gras in a vermouth-laced gelée—the pork tender, slow-cooked, sweet-and-salt-tasting, and the whole a study in earthy, smoky flavors made light. From the massive pan-French wine list we chose a juicy, perfumed Ostertag 1995 Fronholz Pinot Gris with a palate-enlivening crispness and the luscious body to stand up to whatever might come next. Which was a subtle, richly satisfying tarte of pike-perch and grenouille (frogs' legs), heated and sauced tableside and served with knepfele, Alsace's answer to ravioli, filled with a local white cheese. What the whole thing—there were four more courses—had to do with Goethe I was never quite sure, but a voyage it was, so smoothly transporting that we were half-startled to find a bright sun still shining outside.
In a state of rapturous satiety we wandered down the Rue de l'Outre and out onto the great cathedral square, the crossroads of Strasbourg's old quarter. Souvenir hawkers, jostling students, bicyclists, beggars, and earnest tour groups converged beneath the pink sandstone immensity of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the structure where the Gothic urge to connect earth and heaven climbed to its most cloud-threatening height. The astonishing, lacy 469-foot spire of Strasbourg's cathedral, completed in 1439, made Notre Dame the world's tallest building for 400 years, until it was eclipsed by Cologne's cathedral in the 19th century.
Amid the square's squat buildings, the spire has lost none of its power to simultaneously humble and sweep the eye skyward. That ability was built into the structure by generations of builders who were at the task for 263 years. The pharaonic labor was supported by a town of souls so prosperous—and thus a prime target—that their houses' peaked roofs were designed for storing grain under the eaves in expectation of sieges.
The cathedral itself has had plenty of narrow scrapes. It survived Prussian shelling in 1870 and an American bomb hit in World War II, but only a typically Alsatian bit of ingenuity had prevented the anti-Catholic French Revolutionists from razing it long before. The zealots were persuaded by a local locksmith to cover it with a huge version of the people's indigenous hat, proclaiming to the conservative Germans just across the Rhine that here in France the Revolution held sway.
A couple of days after lunch at Au Crocodile, we sat down to a midday meal in another world. All morning we had been searching for the obscure route to Breitenbach, a pinpoint of a village in the Vosges Mountains. The roads dipped into and out of pockets of fog, emerging abruptly into vistas of breeze-combed pastures and fieldstone farmhouses, winding up to where the trees were changing to gold, and then down again to green elevations still untouched by autumn. At last a turn of the road placed us at the gates of Ferme-Auberge du Christlesgut, "altitude 850 m" (2,805 feet), as the menu proclaimed.
Under the little farmhouse's steep tile roof was a simple room with a few paper-topped tables and a well-stoked woodstove fire. In various languages everyone said hello as we cracked the door and peered in: two thick-shouldered men in flannel shirts who must have been lumberjacks back in Germany, a multigenerational French family whose toddlers roamed between the tables, and sturdy madame herself, Danièle Dischinger. Soon she was crowding our little table with the first course of the 85-franc ($12) prix fixe repas marcaire: a serving bowl of fresh lettuce, a paving-stone-sized wedge of tourte de la vallée de Munster—succulent pork pie spilling from a buttery crust—and fresh beets over choucroute. A fruity, soft Riesling from a local cooperative was set on the table in a stoneware pitcher.
As the fog burned off outside the farmhouse's picture window, we alternated between gazing at the distant views of perched highland meadows and parti-colored fall hardwood forests and embracing the attentions of Jeffy, Christlesgut's bouvier de bearnoise, a dog that, through years of surreptitious guest feeding, has ballooned to freakish size. The main course arrived: a roïgabrageldi—cascading coarsely mashed potatoes with butter and bacon—served alongside slabs of smoked ham slathered with horseradishy mustard. By then my wife had essentially abdicated further dining duties—she and the French kids were on the floor by the woodstove, goofing around with Jeffy's two-week-old bouncing furball of a puppy.
We left with armloads of purchased farm products, including a full-flavored round of Muenster cheese—this area is home base to that generally forgettable fromage—and a giant chunk of a pungent, hard cheese called barikass. Among our jars of jams was a confiture de sureau, which I couldn't identify. Madame pointed to the sureau right outside the dining room window. I had been staring past the elderberry bush during the whole meal.
We retraced our way down out of the Vosges, through the handsome little town of Munster itself, and began our exploration of Alsace's famous Route du Vin. An interlaced network of country roads stretching more than 100 miles, the Route du Vin is designed not so much to get you anywhere as to thread you, in low gear, past the snares and temptations of every town east of the Vosges. Its sites are majestic (the spotlit hilltop castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg hovering above a bank of clouds at sunset) and mundane (the brake lights of the farm equipment you're stuck behind), and sometimes beautifully simple (a cloud of swifts wheeling in formation around the steeple of Itterswiller).
But it's generally the surprises you uncover yourself that make the Route du Vin worthwhile: a dogleg off through the stunning Val d'Argent to the textile stores in Ste.-Marie-aux-Mines, a stroll through lovely, unheralded Bergheim after an hour-long repast at Chez Norbert, a tavern run like a family reunion by the stout, apple-cheeked owner, Norbert Moeller.
Paradoxically, it is the highly touted, guidebook sites on the Route du Vin that are the most forgettable, even regrettable. The best idea in these parts is to see where the tour buses are headed, then drive on past. On fall weekends they arrive in phalanxes, clogging the roads to postcard-pretty towns like Ribeauvillé, Obernai, Kaysersberg, and above all, Riquewihr.
From their prominence in the guides and on the tours, you would assume that these wine villages represent the soul of Alsace. In fact, they are at war with it, tugging the true, deeply felt character of the place toward kitsch. It's wonderfully authentic that Riquewihr's cobblestoned streets are covered with spilled crushed grape skins at harvesttime. But if you look down for one second, you may be hit by the tourist tram, or knocked over by groups lost in headphone-translated commentaries.
Though Riquewihr is home to Hugel & Fils, one of Alsace's most prominent wineries, there is very little sense of real life here. Instead, in classic tourist-town fashion, every wine bar, frites stand, and film-and-postcard shop seems to operate on the carefree assumption that they are serving customers who will stop in once, reboard a bus, and never return.
Still, there are times when the theme-park feeling can sweep you along. For me, one of those days came at the October wine festival in Obernai, when the town's famous medieval ramparts were breached by wave after wave of hungry tourists. A few steps inside the gates, the aromas began to swirl and beckon. From every side, vendors' stands and open shops wafted the seductions of pretzels, sweet pies—apple, plum, citrus—and every manner of bonbon, lollipop, and what looked like artisanal Ring Dings. People turned blinking from the smoke of grilling sausages. There were giant hams, bulwarks of charcuterie, and pots of freshly gathered honey at the table of the Obernai Syndicat des Apiculteurs (the local beekeepers' association).
We equipped ourselves with glasses of Riesling vin Nouveau, the cloudy, sweet-tart, just-fermented wine of the harvest, and a tarte flambée, the Alsatian version of pizza, with white cheese, bacon, and grilled onions on a tortillalike thin crust. We came upon the great square facing the Ancienne Halle aux Blés, where, in times gone by, the local farmers went to pay their tithes. Here and there around the square you can still see old wooden shutters carved with hearts, the signal that there was a marriageable daughter in the house. On festival day the square has become a kind of Woodstock for the oompah set, with brass bands bullfrogging away over a sea of bobbing heads.
Through some curious fluke, however, Alsace's greatest winemakers—the ones you must make an appointment to see—are rarely found in such wine-tourist towns. They seem to gravitate instead toward the homeliest corners. Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, for example, may be among the finest white-wine makers in the world, but its windows look out on electrical towers, power lines, and a paper mill. One of winedom's least likely suburbanites, urbane, poetic André Ostertag has located his winery amid the rabbit-hutch houses of a bland bedroom community.
The town of Guebwiller is notably unappealing and was made all the more drab by a chill drizzle on the day I visited Domaines Schlumberger. Undaunted by the weather, lovely Eveline Schlumberger ushered me into the passenger seat of a small jeep—something like the Mini-Mokes familiar to Caribbean travelers—and headed off up the side of a hill. An elegant Parisian in a loden coat and gold earrings, Eveline married into the winemaking Schlumbergers, the branch of the family that stayed at home while the rest pursued fortunes in jewelry design and oil-field services.
We drove speedily up a little mud track that spirals like an unwound turban between the vine rows of the Grand Cru vineyard of Kitterlé. Wheeling around blind curves, jogging right to miss rough, jutting rocks, Schlumberger carried on a rolling commentary about the vineyard's Roman history. I wondered when we were going to meet, head-on, some harvesting equipment.
At about this point, far up above Kitterlé's sandstone terraces, she pulled to a stop and hopped out. I opened the passenger side door and . . . I was seized by a spine-grabbing shock of adrenaline. Under the edge of my open car door was a 50-foot drop—and the potential to keep rolling all the way to the rain-blacked outskirts of Guebwiller. In a flash, I understood everything Schlumberger had been telling me: how the vineyard was given to the village idiot, Kuter, back in the Middle Ages because no one else would farm such a precipitous, rocky promontory; how today it is sprayed by helicopter because it's too steep for tractors.
And what wines Kitterlé makes! Intensely concentrated, with notes of butter, almond, and mushrooms, they are white wines that typically take four to five years to blossom. But because the vineyard produces Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer, not the all-too-familiar Chardonnay, the sacrifice of making wines from it, and its centuries-old tradition (it has been farmed by Schlumbergers since 1810), are lost on many international wine buyers. Kitterlé is a profound pleasure you must discover for yourself. And that's what Alsace is all about.
Richard Nalley is Departures' contributing editor for wines and spirits.