When you next plan a visit to Alsace, a must-visit wine region, then don’t forget that it is as simple as crossing the River Rhine to visit the Baden wine region too. What makes this doubly appealing is that both regions are among the most welcoming to wine tourists that you can find in their respective countries, France and Germany.
A third country, Switzerland is where you will find the perfect city start or finish to your visit in Basel or Bâle. With a delightful old town, Basel is not surprisingly well served by excellent restaurants serving food influenced by its neighbours. Living close by for many years Sue Style, food and wine author and contributor to Wine Travel Guides, provides an excellent guide to restaurants in Basel, as well as in Alsace and Baden.
Alsace – gingerbread houses and rich, spicy whites
Nearly everyone you speak to in the wine business becomes a little wistful when you mention Alsace – it’s too long since I’ve been there is the common refrain. Once visited, forever smitten. Yes, Alsace is in eastern France, and the language is French, but it’s so unlike the rest of France. Very neat and tidy, super-welcoming and ultra-friendly, the influence from across its border is very marked.
The city of Strasbourg and town of Colmar are renowned for their attractive streets and buildings, but the small Alsace villages are gorgeous too, like a Disney film set, but so much better and a few centuries older! Behind the pretty gingerbread-like houses and narrow streets, stretching up to the forests are the vineyards, growing the seven permitted grape varieties (six white plus Pinot Noir for rosés and reds), all neatly written on the labels of more than 99% of Alsace wines, no ‘guess-the-grape’ as you have to do with so many French appellation labels.
Go into one of the many wine producers’ tasting rooms, and you will be offered wines at different quality/price levels from all the seven varieties, though some villages excel at two or three in particular according to the vineyards’ soil types. Get to know which grapes work best with the local foods and then you can really indulge in the welcoming Weinstuben (the local name for the typical Alsace wine bar or casual restaurant). For example, the racy Riesling works perfectly with the fresh-river trout, earthy Sylvaner with the onion tart, rich Pinot Gris with the many pork dishes; spicy Gewurztraminer with the smelly Munster cheese; and the dry Muscat is simply lovely to sip on its own.
Exploring the Kaiserstuhl – home to three Pinots
Between the attractive university town of Freiburg and the Rhine River is the southern section of the Baden wine region, named Kaiserstuhl-Tuniberg. The Kaiserstuhl is a low mountain range of ancient volcanic origin; since a rationalization of the vineyard plantings back in the 1970s, the vineyards now form a very distinct part of the landscape grown on wide terraces that follow the contours on the several old volcanic cones. Since visiting the active volcanic landscape of Etna on Sicily recently, the Kaiserstuhl landscape now begins to make much more sense to me.
Just as the Alsace vineyards are one of the sunniest regions in France, lying in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains to the west, so this part of Baden is by far the warmest wine region of Germany. Here Pinot grapes thrive whether Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) or Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) and some excellent, full-bodied wines are made from them, in the furthest style imaginable to the more familiar wines of Germany, such as the delicate, dry and medium dry Rieslings of the Mosel or Rheingau.
Needless to say, the region is full of welcoming guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and wine bars, not to mention the wine producers. Bring your best beard trimmer to fit in with the locals (here’s a comprehensive guide to beard trimmers if you’re looking for a nice travel-sized but quality trimmer). A Kaiserstuhl day-trip last summer is fully described on Brett Jones’ blog, but the highlights were a spectacular walk, beautifully sign-posted through the vineyards and part of a network of paths, a substantial countryside lunch and a visit to the excellent producer Weingut Karl H Johner, known for its Pinot Noirs.
Christmas Markets and Holiday Gifts
Alsace, as well as Germany and Switzerland, is renowned for its Christmas Markets, which are just getting into full-swing now, so you might want to hop over there for a quick visit in the next few weeks – there are no less than five markets in Colmar alone.
But, if you are planning your present buying from your armchair, I’d like to recommend strongly Sue Style’s book (left) for all lovers of Swiss Cheese. Beautifully designed, each major cheese variety has a profile of a producer with gorgeous photographs and moving stories of when Sue meets the cheese-makers. British food and wine writer Fiona Beckett has written an excellent review on her cheese blog.
And don’t forget that for friends planning to tour the vineyards of France next year, you can offer a Gift membership to Wine Travel Guides, giving full access to all the PDF guides for 12 months. Readers of this blog (and those who you share it with) may use the special code D2Blog12 for a discount of 30% off the usual price, bringing the price down to £20 (approximately €26 or $33), valid not only for gifts but for your own membership until 31 Jan 2013. Just enter the code in the box on the page. Take a look at the Strasbourg Guide which is available as a free sample PDF guide on the website.