Although TripGourmet Tom is not a massive lover of wine, I do love a good drop of vino. When my mother invited me to join her in a day tour to explore the Alsace wine route, I jumped at the chance. The Alsace wine region stretches along the bottom half of the French border with Germany. Coming from Basel, it is an easy trip to squeeze into a weekend.
Alsace has no administrative borders of its own however it is a cultural and historical region within Europe. Over the centuries, Alsace has been the subject of multiple border disputes and as such has changed from being under French or Germany governments more than once. Today, the region sits within the French borders and many Alsatians identify firmly as French. However, the French often still regard the Alsace and the Alsatians as being peculiarly Germanic.
Indeed, you can eat bretzels for breakfast, flammküchen (tartes flambée, in French) for lunch, and local sausages with sauerkraut (choucroute, in French) for dinner. At Christmas, almost every village has it’s own traditional Christmas market.
About the Alsace Wine Route
The Alsace wine route covers 170km of picturesque old villages, cultivated vineyards and mostly family-run wineries. There are more than 1000 wine producers, split into five regions.
Alsatian wines are generally white or rosé varieties. Typical grape varieties include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. Rosé wines are usually made from Pinot Noir.
Wines in Alsace are produced under three Appellation d’Origine Contrôlées (AOC), Alsace AOC for general wines, Cremant d’Alsace AOC for sparkling wines and Alsace Grand Cru AOC for the vineyards of a certain higher classification. The Grand Cru wines must meet strict criteria, including coming from particular vineyards of Grand Cru status among others.
Exploring the Alsace wine route
We were looking for a short weekend or a day tour and happened across Vinoroute, who offer the tours in English. We chose their Alsace Wines Discovery Tour, which includes three tastings and a visit to a cellar.
The pickup was around 0930 on Saturday morning, so we decided to take the train on Friday evening and stayed in an AirBnB apartment in the city centre (click here to sign up for AirBnB and get a free credit towards your first stay).
We started the tour in Strasbourg, which is the administrative capital of the Alsace region and home to some of the best Christmas markets in the area. We were picked up by our guide Marc and were joined by a group of three guys. They introduced themselves as friends who were meeting up across the border in Germany and had booked the trip spontaneously.
Marc introduced himself as a native Alsatian who is also married to a winemaker from a winemaking family. There can surely be fewer people more qualified to host a tour to explore the Alsace wine route!
Riquewihr – one of the most beautiful villages in France
The first stop on the Alsace wine route was about 40 minutes drive south of Strasbourg in a village called Riquewihr. When we arrived, it took some moments to understand that the people walking around in beautiful elaborate costumes and Venetian masks were part of some kind of local festival. Walking into this stunningly preserved and colourful medieval village, the strange characters made the place seem almost ethereal.
Riquewihr is officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The walled village has hardly changed in the last 500 years, and even managed to escape being destroyed by bombing in World War II.
Whilst we could have stayed there all morning, we only had a short stop. We drove a short distance away to another village, Mittelwihr and the Domaine Specht winery. There, the winemaker showed us into his cellar. He told us he is the third generation of his family making wine here. He showed us around the cellar and explained the wine making process to us. Afterwards, we had our first wine tasting. The Grand Cru wine from Specht is from a vineyard called Mandelberg, meaning “almond hill”.
We drove to the town of Ribeauvillé for lunch at Brasserie del la Poste.
I had a local Alsatian speciality – onion tart, together with salad. Afterwards, we walked around the historical centre. Ribeauvillé is one of the larger villages on the Alsace wine route, which is also close to three ruined medieval castles. The centre of the village contains many beautiful old medieval shops and buildings.
We also saw a woman feeding a stork in the street! Storks are often seen in Alsace and are a symbol for the region itself. Most people know that storks are associated with newborn babies. However, in these parts those legends run deep and mythical. All around Alsace, you can buy stork-based merchandise as souvenirs.
After lunch, we made our next stop on the Alsace wine route for our second tasting, at the Domaine Halbeisen in Bergheim. There, Marc introduced us to the current generation of this long-standing winemaking family.
The name Halbeisen (half-iron, in German) comes from their 15th century ancestor, Henri Halbeisen. Henri was a knight who could reputedly break a horseshoe in half with his bare hands. He was awarded a coat of arms for his bravery during battles against the Austrians. His 18th century ancestors moved to Alsace to the current family location of Bergheim and started producing wine.
Today, the premises house not just the winery but also a restaurant and a small B&B. It would make an excellent base from which to spend a few days exploring the Alsace wine route in more depth.
Again, the tasting selection was an excellent set of crispy, fruity whites and dry sparkling wines. The Grand Cru wines from Halbeisen come from the vineyard Altenberg.
By now feeling a little tipsy (because who spits out the wine, right?!), we made our way out to walk the village of Bergheim. Another perfectly preserved, walled medieval village, Bergheim has its history in witch trials. More than 40 women were sent to the stake here. We did not have time to visit, but the Maison des Sorciéres (Witches House) holds a record of them.
Today, the village is another stunning Alsatian exercise in medieval and floral beauty. There was a wedding happening at the tiny parish church whilst we were there, which just made the whole scene even more like a fairytale.
Marc drove us to our final wine-tasting of the day, at the Domaine Frey-Sohler in the village of Scherwiller. This was the biggest of the wineries that we visited. We were hosted by Damien Sohler, the current owner – descendent of a rich heritage winemakers dating back to early 18th century.
We did the tasting in their boutique shop attached to the winery in Scherwiller. The crémant wines here, both Riesling and the rosé Pinot Noir, have won awards, including national awards for crémant in France.
By now fully loaded with bottles of wine in the car, and tastings of wine on the brain, we made our way back to Strasbourg. Thankfully, Marc himself shows admirable restraint on a daily basis and does not partake of the wine tasting, meaning the journey back was relatively uneventful! We said our goodbyes to Marc and our tour companions at the end of an extremely fun day out.
I can really recommend the Vinoroute Wine Tours. The experience is not just about the wine tasting, you really get a full day out in the culture of Alsace. This is a unique part of Europe, straddling two cultures and the tour gives you a sense of how this position has influenced the culture and the people. If you find yourself in the Strasbourg or Basel area in want of a days activity, there is no better way to soak up the local flavours than this.
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