The grape harvest at Hugel
Hugel & Fils, Riquewihr
Vineyards surrounding Bergheim and Church of Bergheim
Alsace Vineyard Walk
25 - 31 May 2014
Alsace must rank as one of the most beautiful and charming of all fine wine regions. It is perfect for a walking holiday with good paths through undulating vineyards that offer stunning views of the wine villages. All the time, towering above you are the Vosges Mountains that give the region its ‘rain shadow’ and offer the possibility of further, more challenging walking.
With its location on the border with Germany and German place names, it is easy to see where the confusion arises, but Alsace is French. The people agree that they are Germanic, but put the emphasis on the “ic”! The majority of the wines are dry and full in the French style. The sweet ‘Selection des Grain Nobles’ sound French but are Germanic. The vineyards have a small majority of French varieties in them; the Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir above the German Riesling and Sylvaner. The Gewurztraminer sounds German but comes from Italy and the Muscat probably comes from present day Turkey!
The small, delightful half-timber villages of Alsace seem to have walked straight out of the pages of Grimm’s fairytales and are home to some of the most hospitable and distinguished wine producers in all France. From two 3* hotels in the typical villages of Riquewihr and Bergheim we walk 5-9 miles a day, through some of the best vineyards in Alsace, with picnic lunches and auberge dinners. Our first base, for two nights, is Bergheim.
This walk covers the centre part of the lovely Alsace Haut-Rhin vineyards and villages. Starting with a descent from the Château of Haut Koenigsbourg, we head south with gentle walking for the next few days. Our first stop is with a family owned winery with 25 hectares of vines around St. Hippolyte under Koenigsbourg. The harvest is entirely handpicked and the range of wines includes Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and a rouge Pinot Noir. After a picnic lunch we visit Rolly-Gassmann for an amazing tasting. The friendly Rolly-Gassmann family have always made splendid wines; in the past they were big, rich and often a touch sweet. The new style though is focused, fine and mineral. They make a huge range of wines with single vineyard selections and aged releases across the gamut of the Alsace grape varieties and styles. That there should be approaching 10 different Rieslings is less surprising than the fact that there is a (fascinating) single vineyard Auxerrois. With other growers, this variety is normally lost in the Pinot Blanc blend.
This evening is free in Bergheim, in the Haut-Rhin, its Grand Cru vineyards yield delicious, elegant Gewurztraminers and Rieslings. This medieval walled village was once a haven for criminals on the run. The fortified gateway leads to a colourful town, with a charming cobbled market square. There is a Baroque fountain, bordered by a red sandstone town hall and the church.
Next day on to Ribeauvillé, then past the hamlet of Hunawihr, with its fortified church, to Riquewihr where we are based for four nights. Here we visit Hugel, one of the great names. At Hugel we see how the wine trade is intricately linked to geo-politics and how the fate of companies involved in the trade is affected, how they and the rest of the Alsace wine industry had to change their production, customers and whole ethos every time the Franco-German border moved. Hugel have been far from passive players on the stage of history, on one level we see the correspondence between Jean Hugel and Winston Churchill and on a more prosaic level how Hugel helped shape the legislation for the ‘Vendange Tardive’ and ‘Selection des Grains Nobles’ that has been so important and successful for the whole region. It is fascinating to see how they manage a fairly large-scale wine production in the centre of a medieval village. After a cellar visit, we’ll have a tasting of a selection of wines that we hope will include their famed Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive and Selection des Grains Nobles.
Lunchtime is spent in picturesque Riquewihr, probably the most beautiful of the Alsace villages, with a maze of cobbled streets to explore and well-preserved half-timber houses. It also has many tempting cake shops, selling the local speciality “kugelhopf”, as well as winstubs and cafes.
We walk on to Kientzheim, passing by two Grand Crus vineyards, Sporen and Furstentum. Here we have a tasting with Domaine Paul Blanck, an excellent family-run estate. The Blancks have a passionate quest to understand and express the terroir of the Kientzheim / Kaysersberg valley: The Grand Crus Schlossberg and Furstentum and the deeper-soiled Altenburg. From these vineyards we try wines of restrained elegance, great finesse and powerful character. It is a style of wine fits well with the Riesling grape, a great interpreter of terroir. An optional extra walk takes us to Kaysersberg.
After relaxing for the evening in Riquewihr, we start again in the morning from Kaysersberg via Niedermorschwihr on to Turckheim. We stop en-route to enjoy a tasting at Domaine de l’Oriel, we hope to be met by winemaker Claude Weinzorn who is responsible for placing Domaine de l’Oriel in the top layer of producers that are most appreciated among local connoisseurs of Alsace wines. The wines from Domaine de l’Oriel are consistently and perfectly clean with fresh fruitiness, and fully express the characteristics of the terroir, which includes three Grand Cru sites.
Lunchtime is a picnic near Turckheim and then there is free time in Turckheim. Turckheim is probably most well-known for its surrounding medieval wall. The wall has three doors, or portes: The Munster Door, which opens into the Munster Valley; The Door of the Brand, which begins the Route des Vins; and the Door of France, through which lies the railway station and the roads to Colmar. Another attractive feature of Turckheim is the Night Watchman, a traditionally dressed Turckheim native, who carries a halberd and lantern and makes the rounds each night from May to October, warning inhabitants to “watch their hearths and candles”! We drive up to the ruined chateaux above Husseron and Eguisheim and after exploring these, will walk down to Husseron-le-Chateaux.
Here we taste at Vignoble André Scherer, Husseren-les-Chateaux. André Scherer, the eighth generation of the family, succeeded his father Armand and developed the Domaine with his wife who herself came from a viticultural family in Gueberschwihr. Now their son, Christophe, having trained in Burgundy and Australia, has returned to look after and run the Domaine and continues to uphold his family’s traditions. André Scherer owns some 7 ha of vines including parts of the Grand Crus Goldert, Pfersigberg and Eichberg. Single vineyards expressing the terroir are what this estate is all about. They work in ‘sustainable agriculture’ at the moment.
On the other side of the Rhine valley in Germany are the mountains of the Black Forest. Wine-wise this is an interesting place, for just outside the university city of Freibour there is an extinct volcano, the Kaiserstuhl, which produces superb Pinot Noir. The landscape here with its huge stepped terraces, is quite different to the Alsace, so this will make for an interesting change too.
The whole of our next day of walking is spent in here. We cross the Rhine into Baden and in the Kaiserstuhl vineyards we will taste Pinot Noir that we are sure will surprise and delight you. We visit two of the leading estates in the area. We visit Dr Heger in Ihringen, one of the warmest places in Germany and where Dr Heger is producing Cabernet Sauvignon as well as wonderful Pinot Noir. We also visit Karl H. Johner, who focuses on making Burgundian style wines. After crossing the border back into France, the evening is free for you join the guide for dinner or make your own arrangements.
Alsace, with its dry climate, is in the rain shadow of the Vosges where the vineyards give way to pasture, scattered fruit trees and then forest. This is the source of the fruit for ‘eau de vie’ which the region is famous for. We cover this fine country on our last day, seeing peaks and lakes, visiting a distillery and having a great lunch at a ferme auberge. Today is our last day of walking and we will be well ‘worn in’ by this stage of the tour and able to enjoy this stunning scenic walk in the Vosges Mountains, which have been towering above us for the last few days.
We first drive up to a sensible start point, as the Vosges rise to 7000 ft! The walking is more serious than a vineyard amble but is not too difficult or particularly arduous and will give us superb views of the Rhine valley below and the alpine pastures. We pass the glacial Lacs Noir and Blanc before descending to a traditional ferme auberge for a traditional hearty lunch, with local wines.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we drop into Lapoutroie and to one of the best distilleries in Alsace, Distillerie Miclo. Here we can taste various eaux-de-vie such as Poire William, Mirabelle, Quetsch, Prune, Framboise, as well as wild fruit from the Vosges and famously Marc de Gewürztraminer and Marc de Muscat. (Their Crème de Cassis is also extremely good and great for making Kir). To say farewell, we will have our final dinner together at a Michelin Star restaurant in Riquewihr. On our last morning after breakfast, for those who wish to get back to Colmar, there will be a complimentary transfer to drop off in time for the 10:11 train from Colmar to Paris (timing correct 31/7/12).
This wonderful walk of Alsace, with its charming countryside and welcoming winemakers, is a perfect place to discover world-class Reisling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and those famous late harvest wines!