Join Hamish Marett-Crosby on a wine and food lovers’ journey around some of the great wine-producing areas of Europe. What more natural place to start than France, where over the next few months on wine-pages, Hamish will take you through Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and beyond. For each of the regions Hamish will evoke the best of wine, food, culture and scenery. In this first installment, he spends a few days in and around the vineyards of Alsace, enjoying one of Europe’s most interesting cultural fusions and some of France’s greatest, but least well-known grands vins.
Alsace: Proudly Different
Alsace is the parade ground of Europe; it has known war for centuries. More recently there have been three wars in the last 120 years and each time the region ended up, if not on the winning side, at least as the spoils of the victor. Southern Alsace sprawls across a gap between the Alps and the Vosges mountains which offers one of the few routes east and west across the Rhine that an army can take with ease, and take it they have. The results of being a permanent witness to war can cause a region to lose its identity and, like the Vicar of Bray, redefine itself with each change at the top. The alternative is to look inwards, to ignore whoever might be the masters of the moment, and to preserve the indigenous culture.
It is the latter strategy which has been adopted in Alsace. Although obviously Germanic, Alsace is part of France – as it was before 1870 and has been since 1918 with a short gap in the in the second world war. The language is thoroughly Germanic, the houses are very much of the Hansel and Gretel school of architecture and the wines… well whatever else they are, they are not French. But strangely, neither are they German. Wines are sold by the grape variety (unique in France for Appellation Contrôlée) and the most famous of them are the Riesling and the Gewürztraminer, wines that are as individual as the area in which they are made.Jean Hugel is head of a wine family that has been in business for generations. He suggests that the differing occupations amounted to no more than the customs posts being shuffled between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine.
As far the wine growers were concerned, although they kept on losing their home market, their own identity has never been in doubt.
And they make it easy for the traveller to explore. The route de vin encourages you to go off the beaten track and to meander through villages with unpronounceable names looking at the flower-bedecked balconies in disbelief. Surely this can’t be France you say, but it is – despite the village names. And there are some you have to visit, like Riquewihr, Turkheim, and the rest.The cities encourage the visitor to explore the little streets in which are preserved a surprising amount of mediaeval buildings. The centres of Colmar and Strasbourg show the heritage. The latter with its ornate gothic cathedral and the extraordinary seven story mediaeval houses around it. There are the peaceful parts of the old city to be seen from the boat trips on the intricate system of canals and rivers that interlace the city.How can this be in such a war torn area, you wonder? Then in the equally lovely countryside and near the unspoilt villages you come across great tracts of the Maginot line still waiting for the army which never came in the direction expected, and you realise that the region was relatively lucky.
It is a land of storks, with houses and town halls topped off with great cradles where the birds nest. A land of wine and food which combine the very best of the French and German traditions. A land where the Vosges mountains captivate with distant views of one range topping another as they exist in a child’s paintings but never, until you have been to Alsace, in real life.
Those of you who don’t like large portions should avoid Alsace cuisine. It is filling and very noticeable. Pig, at its most obvious and its most bizarre, appears in every possible guise, many of them combined in special dishes involving choucroute, sausages and all the bits which couldn’t be used in any other way. Oh yes and don’t forget the onion tart. Yet it can also be delicate with exquisite pâtés, and patisserie. All to be washed down with a luscious Gewürztraminer or Muscat picked from over-ripe grapes. Little inns in the northern Vosges mountains offer fresh mountain trout and game from the woods. And to many people’s surprise noodles are served as a staple. There are chocolates to die for.
Despite the very feel of the culture – manifestly not French; born and preserved out of adversity – French is spoken and the Franc was the currency until the Euro swamped the land. Does the arrival of the Euro spell the end for these precious regional cultures? With luck no, as over the centuries Alsace has steadfastly refused to be categorised. Maybe the European Union at last will see the customs post on the Rhine be taken down and not merely shifted east or west.
Paradoxically it could be that a culture preserved as a life-belt in times of war and occupation might be diluted by peace. Who’s to say? But in the meantime, Alsace has survived for centuries. Long may it continue to be different and always come out on the winning side.