Alsace and Champagne
...from wine to bubbly...the wine routes of northeast France...
DATES: October 7 - 17, 2013 COMPLETED
Hidden away in the extreme northeast corner of France, the romantic, fairy-tale region of Alsace is far from being one of the better known regions of France to American tourists and is the first location on our fall photo tour to Alsace and Champagne. The least French of all the provinces of France, Alsace lies between Germany to the east and the great plains of Champagne to the west. Dominated by the domed and crinkled peaks of the Vosges mountain range it is a series of picture postcards landscapes and villages, possible the most beautiful wine region in all of France. The Vosges mountains are not in the same league as the Alps, but they have some spectacular scenic routes snaking their way up through cool green valleys and groomed forests of variegated pines, to wooded peaks holding deep blue glaciated lakes.
Occupying a narrow band along the wooded eastern slopes of the Vosges mountains and looking towards the Rhine and the slopes of the Black Forest across the border, lie the gently rolling acres of the Alsace wine region. This beautiful area of half-timbered, "Hansel and Gretel" houses swathed in red geraniums, and row upon row of neatly contoured vineyards stretching up and over the hills, is unsurpassed for beauty by any wine growing region in the world. If you look at a Michelin map of France, you will find that there are more “green roads” in Alsace than in any other region, (a ”green road” is Michelin’s way of marking routes of outstanding natural beauty). Indeed this region has such an irresistible combination of mountains, vineyards and exquisite villages that it is doubtful if anywhere else more closely resembles the romantic ideal of “wine country”. It is also by far the most colorful region of France due to the local habit of painting the half timbered houses all the colors of the rainbow, making it a photographer's wonderland.
Alsace is one of the most visually distinctive regions of France, its architecture, customs and cuisine are quite different from any other. The vineyards of this region bear little resemblance to France’s other wine producing regions primarily because the area is so mountainous. For more than seven centuries from 870 until 1648, Alsace was German. Ceded then to France it was annexed to Prussia in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war and not repossessed by France until 1918. Seven centuries of influence have left their mark and in architecture, art and virtually every other aspect of cultural life the Germanic past of the region is inescapable. The perturbations of the Middle Ages left an impressive legacy of religious and military architecture - hilltop fortresses, chateaux, abbeys, monasteries, churches, chapels and ramparts are found everywhere. Alsace has clung ferociously to its mixed French-German tradition taking the best features of each culture. Many of the villages, wines and people have German names and until 1945 most of the street names were in German. There is plenty of folklore with people dressing traditionally and slapping their thighs to brass bands, but there is also sophistication in the standards of hospitality and food that you would expect from France.
Alsace exudes contentment, it is good-natured, clean, orderly, prosperous and well-fed. Of all the wine regions of France none receives more published praise for the quality of its food than Alsace and nowhere is there a more natural compatibility of wine and food or such sympathy between chef and winegrower. Alsatian wines, primarily white, take their names from the grape variety that goes into them, (Gewürztraminer, Riesling etc.) unlike the rest of France where wines are named after the regions where they are produced.
Autumn is the season to visit Alsace, which often has sunny weather and misty mornings this time of year. It is the season of Bacchus, the god of wine, when the black and yellow grapes glisten under the rust colored leaves. The smell of wood smoke and ferementing grape juice will be in the crisp and clear air outside, and in the cafes and bars, the cold of an autumn day can be warmed by hot drinks and good cheer.
Down in the valleys, lying very close to one another, surrounded by a sea of well tended vines are the wine villages of the Route du Vin (the Wine Route). Over one hundred storybook-pretty villages are sprinkled along this route, announced by a church spire (many with nesting storks) peeking out over the vineyards, enticing one to descend into a setting of impossibly picturesque narrow streets, tiny courtyards, fountain-centered squares and half-timbered houses dripping with geraniums. However these are no fake Disneyland tourist villages. The houses are genuinely old and reflect authentic regional architecture. Also, serious wine is made here and a large majority of the population is employed in grape growing or wine making. In the fall the grapes are harvested and the wine is made in an atmosphere of positive expectation and joy.
It is this chain of wine villages along the wine route, with their great and particular charm, which make the experience of visiting Alsace unique. The road which links them passes through appealing countryside along the edge of the Vosges mountains, passing old ruined castles outlined against the sky. It is difficult to choose between the villages because each one has something delightful to offer: half-timbered buildings colored in raspberry pink, saffron yellow, deep blue or pistachio green like real-life gingerbread houses, cobblestone streets, fountains, clock towers and window boxes.
For our tour to we have selected the most exquisite and well preserved villages including Hunawihr, which is a small wine village on a hillside in the shadow of the Vosges. It has a castle-like church set on a knoll on the edge of the village in a sea of vines. The village was established in the 7th century. It is quite small - two narrow streets and a number of lanes lined by timbered houses dating from the 16th century. It is undoubtedly one of the prettiest and most unspoiled of the Alsatian villages and wherever you look there are window boxes, old wine barrels and ancient stone fountains.
Just over the hill from Hunawihr is Riquewihr, rightly described as “the jewel of Alsace”. Riquewihr is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval villages in France. In spite of the ravages of past wars, more than half of the existing buildings date from before the beginning of the 17th century. It lies in a hollow between vine covered slopes, with the green-blue mountains of the Vosges rising up behind. Two fortified gateways guard the village and the village walls are still intact. Inside, the cobbled streets are lined with many fine houses richly decorated with timbered facades, carved stonework and sculptured doorways, ornate iron balconies and signs. The village prides itself on its Riesling wine, which has been produced by its population for centuries. The vintners’ houses form a photogenic unity with their mixture of red sandstone, brick, timbering, painted facades and balconies of flowers.
The road from Riquewihr to Ribeauville was the scene of intense fighting during World War II, which accounts for the abundance of memorials and graves. There is a stork reserve near here, part of a program to restock the area with these huge birds which have been hunted almost to the point of extinction, but which now are often seen nesting on chimney tops. Bergheim, freely translated, means home on the hill. With its 14th century fortifications, 19th century “medieval” chateau de Reichenberg and its winemakers’ houses in both Gothic and Renaissance style, it is one of the most attractive of the wine villages of Alsace. In the market place the flower covered fountain is surrounded by half-timbered houses brightly colored in blue, green or ochre. The ancient moat is now filled with gardens. Gewürztraminer is the specialty of the village and there are marked footpaths through the vineyards.
Also on the itinerary is Eguisheim, a flower-decked village which has changed little since the 16th century. Its cobbled circular street which runs around the inside of the rampart walls, is lined with old houses and courtyards. In the middle of the village is an octagonal castle with a Renaissance fountain in front of it. We will also visit the lovely town of Colmar, considered by many to be the most beautiful town in the region. It is interlaced with canals reminiscent of Venice and has innumerable half-timbered colored houses and buildings.
After seven nights touring the Wine Route in Alsace we will move east to another famous wine producing region - perhaps THE most famous one of all - Champagne - the wine of celebration and seduction and the perfect appetizer for food and love. As Napoleon said of Champagne, "in victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.." Everyone has got a kick from the bubbly celebration drink with the popping cork at some point, but how many have visited the region from whence this deliciousness comes?
The region of Champagne lies to the east of Paris about halfway to the German border. It has had a turbulent past with constant invasions throughout history including during the World Wars 1 and 2. Now since 1945 thankfully, peace has reigned giving this region the chance to develop its full potential as the producer of a very special type of sparkling wine called Champagne. The double fermentation "method Champenoise" was discovered by a monk called Dom Perignon in the second half of the 17th century in the village of Hautvillers. Only wine produced in the French region of Champagne can be called Champagne. The rest is just sparkling wine...
Most champagnes are a blend of several different types of grape from different vineyards: the Pinot Noir black grapes, Pinot Meunier black grapes and Chardonnay white grapes. Only Blancs de Blanc Champagne is made solely from white grapes. The grapes are grown on the well-drained, chalky soil of the Champagne region and are handpicked - only the best grapes are used for champagne.
Reims and Epernay are the two major cities in this region, and we will certainly visit and photograph the ancient gothic cathedral of Reims, where the kings of France were once crowned and where in 1429 Joan of Arc brought the claimant to the throne and crowned him Charles VII, thus setting in motion the train of events that saved France from the English. This cathedral was one of the first monuments to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site and celebrated its 800th birthday in 2011. Its every stone echoes with hundreds of years of history. If the weather is kind, we will photograph the exterior of the cathedral in the early evening when it is illuminated.
Away from the glitz and riches of Reims and Epernay is the unpretentious Champagne of small producers, rivers and villages. Gently curvaceous vineyards line the Champagne Tourist Wine Route as it winds through some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Here, the wine is made by families long-steeped in the traditional Champagne method, in sleepy villages bordered by rivers and woods. Big names that line the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay such as Moet & Chandon and Perrier-Jouet own much of this land or buy grapes from small producers. But a visit to local cultivators and a tasting of the prized produce in their homes is a very different experience to the glamour of the Avenue. We will spend two nights in this region, staying at a Champagne maker's bed and breakfast where we will enjoy our last night's dinner in their cellar - accompanied by a different champagne for every course. We will photograph the vineyards, the cellars, the people, the cafes, and the food , setting up one of our famous still lives in a champagne cellar and maybe sampling a glass or two of fizz... inevitable really as it is on every menu in every restaurant and brasserie in the region. We will also get the chance to "Sabrer" a bottle... opening it with a sabre!!