I confess that “arguably the most beautiful wine region in the world” is a phrase I’ve used to describe the Cape Winelands, Mendoza, Burgundy, the Douro Valley and the Wachau Valley, among others. Well, add Alsace to the list. Grapevines thrive on the slopes of the forested Vosges Mountains, often topped by crumbling castles built to protect the half-timbered towns below. Nowadays, the Route des Vins links these picturesque and mostly well-preserved towns, threading through the vineyards dividing them.
France’s easternmost wine appellation occupies something of a rain shadow between the Vosges and the Rhine River at the border with Germany. And at first glance, many Alsatian wines look more like German bottlings than French ones. Contrary to French custom, vintners in the Alsace often label their wines according to the grape variety, as they usually do in Germany. And many of the grapes themselves — Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, to name some of the most popular — are also easy to find in German vineyards.
Grape vines thrive on the slopes of the forested Vosges Mountains, often topped by crumbling castles built to protect the half-timbered towns below.
Alsatian wines have their own distinctive character, however, separating them from their German siblings. Look for an additional measure of spiciness in the whites, which also often finish with a dash of bracing minerality. Riesling is the marquis variety, but Gewürztraminer arguably hits its highest highs in Alsace. Pinot Noir, the only local red, has increased in richness and depth over the years, but it remains light-bodied and delicate. I also recommend trying Alsace’s white blends, which can be just as delicious, and sometimes even more so, than its varietal wines.
We visited seven wineries over the course of our stay, each of which has something unique to offer the oenophile. I tended to avoid the most famous names, like Trimbach, opting instead for high-quality smaller wineries in a range of locations along Alsace’s most important stretch of grand cru vineyards. Here are my recommendations, listed from north to south.
A short walk from the 5 Terres Hôtel & Spa, this welcoming winery has a cozy tasting room adjacent to the winemaking facilities. We made an appointment for a visit, but a number of people who clearly hadn’t called ahead stopped in as well. The friendly Sandrine gave us a quick tour of the winery before sitting us down with the menu of some 34 wines to try. I decided to do a little compare and contrast, trying, for example, the entry-level and surprisingly perfumed Pinot Noir, followed by a floral and ripe barrel-aged Pinot Noir and a graceful but forceful grand cru Pinot. Comparing three Rieslings and three Gewürztraminers in similar fashion was fascinating. I was also struck by the richness and complexity of the two crémants I tried, as well as the lush and spicy Klevener de Heiligenstein, a unique Alsatian white made from the Savagnin Rosé grape.
1 Rue des Lièvres, Barr. Tel. (33) 3-88-08-52-50
Jean-Pierre Rietsch needs to hire someone to run his tasting room. He is a talented winemaker unafraid of taking risks and experimenting, but he clearly has better things to do than host curious tourists. However, those with more than a passing interest in Alsatian wine should overlook his unwelcoming demeanor and lack of English in order to try his unusual and powerful organic wines. He often makes use of minimal-intervention winemaking techniques, resulting in unexpected flavors, textures and even colors. His 2018 Pinot Gris Quand Le Chat N’est Pa Là is bright pink because of the 14 days of skin contact (Pinot Gris grapes, though normally made into a white wine, have dark skins). It tasted of berries and yeast, and it even had some tannins on the finish, closing with a rasping texture more associated with red wines. A 2015 Gewürztraminer made without the addition of stabilizing sulfur was darkly sour, exotic and dry as dust. And don’t miss the Riesling Grand Cru Zotzenberg, a wild wine of pear, pickle and popcorn. Reservations required.
Vins d’Alsace Rietsch
7 Rue Stein, Mittelbergheim. Tel. (33) 6-79-05-25-08
Some extra time in our schedule allowed us to make an unannounced visit at this acclaimed winery in Andlau, a short drive from both Barr and Mittelbergheim. Even though we’d arrived without an appointment and during the midday break, the owners welcomed us warmly into their home. Jessica, a Canadian sommelier, led a memorable tasting of precise Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. It was especially illuminating to try Rieslings from three grand cru vineyards, each of which with a different soil type. The sandstone-rich Wiebelsberg vineyard produced a gorgeous, juicy Riesling with floral and mineral notes, the crowd-pleasing Riesling from the marly Moenchberg had prickly citrus and spice, and the ancient Kastelberg — the Romans planted vines in its schist-based soil — resulted in a remarkable Riesling of lush fruit and chalky minerality. “This one is a machine,” Jessica remarked. Indeed. I also appreciated winemaker Guy Wach’s well-balanced and complex Gewürztraminers, some of the best I tried in all of Alsace. Reservations recommended.
5 Rue de la Commanderie, Andlau. Tel. (33) 3-88-08-93-20
After failing to receive replies to our emails and unable to use the malfunctioning contact form on the winery’s website, we resorted to asking our hotel to reserve a tasting for us. It did so, but the tasting room staff didn’t seem to care whether we had a reservation or not (it wasn’t necessary to make one). I tried 18 wines here, and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Favorites included a heady and dusty-mineral 2013 Riesling Altenbourg (a lieu-dit, or small vineyard), a taut and focused 2015 Pinot Blanc Sol Calcaire with a surprisingly long and spicy finish, a prickly and yeasty 2018 Pinot Gris with no added sulfur, a rich and classy 2013 Pinot Noir Clos Sainte Odile, and a floral and chalky 2016 Gewürztraminer Sol Calcaire. This tasting room is casual, contemporary and fun, and ideal for those who prefer not to worry about making appointments in advance.
Maison Pierre Sparr
14 Rue de Hoen, Beblenheim (park in the lot to the left of the sign reading “Caves de Hoen”). Tel. (33) 3-89-78-24-22
Just off the main road into Kaysersberg, this winery occupies an elegant 17th-century Capuchin monastery, converted into a private home and winery in 1898 by the Faller family, its current owners. The gracious Catherine Faller herself greeted us and installed us in a cozy wood-paneled dining room, decorated with antique sideboards, family photos and a ceramic stove. I felt like an honored guest, all the more so once Faller started pouring her superb wines, made from the estate’s 69 acres of biodynamically farmed vineyards. We started on a high note with the fragrant 2017 Pinot Noir Altenbourg, redolent of dark cherry, violet and a well-integrated touch of oak. I also liked the dry and floral Muscat and even the bright and refreshing Sylvaner, but it was two other wines that floored me. The 2005 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg felt serious and sexy, proving that great Rieslings can age beautifully. And the 2018 Pinot Gris Cuvée Ste. Catherine had an enticing buttered-popcorn note to its aroma, mouth-filling white fruit and refined acidity that resolved into a mineral finish. What a joy of a tasting. Reservations strongly recommended.
25 Route du Vin, Kaysersberg. Tel. (33) 3-89-47-13-21
Ammerschwihr suffered extensive damage in World War II, but the winery managed to preserve its cellar, including foudres (giant barrels) dating to the 19th century. Jean-Baptiste Adam’s history goes back much further, however. We met the current owner, Jean-Baptiste Adam (named for his grandfather), and his daughter, Laure, the 14th and 15th generations of winemakers, respectively. Jean-Baptiste led us on a fascinating tour of the winemaking facility, pointing out the historic foudres and small stainless-steel tanks he uses for experimental projects. The winery makes wines from grapes it buys as well as from its own biodynamically farmed vineyards. I loved the elegant and cheerful Crémant Les Natures and the classy, chalky Brut Rosé. But the real stars were old-vine wines from the nearby Kaefferkopf vineyard, classified as a grand cru only in 2006. The 2015 Riesling Kaefferkopf Vieilles Vignes gave me tingles up and down my spine, such was its elegance and power. And the 2016 Gewürztraminer Kaefferkopf Vieilles Vignes managed to be simultaneously fat, taut and mineral. An appointment doesn’t seem necessary, considering the size of the tasting room, but I recommend one nevertheless. Either way, don’t miss this winery, a few minutes’ drive from both Kaysersberg and Domaine Weinbach.
5 Rue de l’Aigle, Ammerschwihr. Tel. (33) 3-89-78-23-21
The most commercial of the operations on this list, Cattin made me feel a little skeptical, with its dramatic contemporary tasting room rising above the vineyards. I wondered if the wines would live up to the sleek architecture, more suited to Mendoza than Alsace. We arrived late, having been delayed at a previous tasting, and missed the tour. But fortunately, we had time to sit down with a group from Strasbourg, there to celebrate a birthday, and enjoy a tasting.
Our tasting guide, Gilles, took excellent care of the seven of us, switching easily from French to English, and the wines proved delicious. I liked the frothy, sharp and minerally Crémant Emotion, and I loved the classy 2010 Grande Cuvée Crémant, which had a pleasing note of brioche in the aroma, ripe pear flavors and focused acidity. A floral and balanced 2018 Muscat had no bitterness, which can sometimes mar wines made from this grape. But most memorable were the lush and grapefruity 2014 Riesling from the Elsbourg lieu-dit and the graceful 2017 Gewürztraminer Cuvée Prestige from the Bollenberg lieu-dit, a full-bodied beauty with plenty of ripe fruit, spice and minerality balancing the perfume notes. You’re unlikely to meet the winemaker here, but the terrace has fine views, the staff are friendly, and the wines are very good. Reservations recommended.
35 Rue Roger Frémeaux, Voegtlinshoffen. Tel. (33) 3-89-49-30-21