When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine, fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace wine grower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner – to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender winegrowing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.
Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old – pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was actually a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.
But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is slowly coming into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, Muré, Zusslin, Hugel et al) who have already taken this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions.
This is a version of my article published in the January 2016 issue of Decanter, entitled Alsace: Wine and Food Lover’s Guide. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the best food and the most exciting wine lists in Alsace today. I posted it over on www.suestyle.com and at the risk of repeating myself am including it here too – all the restaurants are standouts for their food, but a big bonus in each case is their wine selection, inevitably a rich source of Alsace finds. Some of the restos are new (i.e. newly opened and/or new to me); others are tried and true faves which feature on my Eating Out Alsace, Basel & Baden pages.
Alsace is one of those reassuring places where you are unlikely ever to go hungry or thirsty. The very name is synonymous with foie gras, choucroute garnie, pork pies in flaky pastry, wine-rich game stews, fruit tarts, ice cream studded with kirsch-soaked raisins, elegant Riesling and powerful eau-de-vie de Marc de Gewurztraminer.
This is a region with a deeply rooted, centuries-old culture of food and wine, with echoes of both its French and Germanic heritage. The snag about deep roots and ancient cultures is that things can get stuck in a deep rut. But thanks to its location on a major north-south axis and its shared – and shifting – borders, Alsace has always been exposed to external influences and open to new ideas. Alongside reliably good classic cooking and decently made wines, there’s constant renewal on the restaurant front and significant developments in the vineyards. Wine critic James Suckling describes Alsace today as “France’s most exciting wine region”, noting its astonishing diversity of wines from an array of grape types, soils, microclimates and producers. Time for some Alsace wine travel to catch up with what’s hot in this singular region.
This year’s hot ticket is the Villa René Lalique, north of Strasbourg in Wingen-sur-Moder. The brand-new restaurant is a luminous glass pavilion designed by star architect Mario Botta, juxtaposed with René Lalique’s 1920s timbered and gabled family home that was recently restored to perfection by Silvio Denz, Swiss entrepreneur, vineyard owner and CEO of Lalique. It’s a glittering showcase not only for Lalique crystal and glassware but also for some jaw-dropping kitchen fireworks by Chef Jean-Georges Klein, lured here by Denz from triple-starred L’Arnsbourg in Baerenthal.
The tasting menu is a magical succession of tiny surprises that combine and contrast crunchy with silky-smooth, spicy with sweet-sour, piping hot with ice cold. The wine list is a hefty bible which dovetails Denz’s own formidable cellar (big on Bordeaux and the US) with award-winning sommelier Romain Iltis’ hand-picked Alsace selection. Rieslings are writ large, from headline-grabbing new wines from old-established names (Trimbach’s Grand Cru Geisberg, Hugel’s Grosse Laüe) to grand crus from relative newbies Paul Ginglinger and Henry Fuchs. A revelation for those unwilling to believe Alsace’s potential for decent red wine is the page devoted to Pinot Noir, where Iltis ventures beyond the territory once monopolised by Albert Mann, Muré, Zusslin & Co. to reveal budding Pinot craftsmen like Jean-Paul Schmitt and Schoenheitz.
Heading south to Marlenheim, at the top end of the Route des Vins, Le Cerf ticks all the Alsace boxes with its timbers, geraniums, wood panelling and Spindler marquetry. Yet this family affair, founded by Chef Michel Husser’s great-grandfather, is constantly renewing itself. It’s reasonable to expect choucroute in a country inn, but Husser’s version, surmounted with bite-sized chunks of crackly-crusted, melt-in-mouth sucking pig and seared foie gras, is a contemporary triumph. A civet of local venison is par for the course too in game-rich Alsace, but the chef slips in a crisp samosa of morello cherries as accompaniment. Even that Alsace classic vacherin glacé gets a makeover with a gossamer layer of meringue enclosing multi-coloured sorbet nuggets. The wine list has a special place in its heart for top drops from the Bas-Rhin, including from Domaine Pfister, Mochel and Anne-Marie Schmitt.
The fact that Marc Haeberlin of the legendary Auberge de l’Ill is consultant chef for Strasbourg’s Les Haras is apt to set pulses racing and raise expectations, which are not invariably met. The point here is the place, not what’s on your plate. You climb up the swirling spiral staircase to the first floor where, suspended beneath the rafters of what were once the stables of Strasbourg’s National Stud, designer Patrick Jouin has conjured an award-winning contemporary dining space. There’s a buzz of happy, shiny people tucking into French brasserie fare of the sweetbreads/magret de canard school, with occasional Asian and Latin American intrusions, washed down with Meteor draft beer and wines from all the usual suspects (Hugel, Josmeyer, Zind-Humbrecht).
Back on the Route des Vins at Au Potin in Barr, owner and antiques collector Hervé Duhamel has created a Parisian-style Alsatian bistro complete with mirrors, brass hatstands and copies of today’s Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace hanging from wooden newspaper holders. From the kitchen comes a pleasing mix of old-school favourites (tarte flambée, choucroute, foie gras) and daily-changing specials (fresh pasta, succulent low-temperature meat), plus creative all-vegetable main dishes – a rarity in carnivorous Alsace. Open wines come from Duhamel’s winegrowing friends and neighbours, including André Ostertag, Lucas Rieffel and Patrick Meyer.
A sidestep up into the Vosges takes you to Hotel-Restaurant La Cheneaudière in Colroy-la-Roche. Chef Roger Bouhassoun sources everything possible within about a 20-kilometre radius of his kitchen and then butchers, fillets, cooks or preserves everything from scratch, simply because he can’t conceive of doing things any other way. The result is food with attitude and a strong sense of ‘somewhereness’ (soft-boiled eggs with chanterelles from the Vosges and the chef’s home-cured ham, locally farmed snails bathed in a herby foam, slow-cooked pigeon breast with the legs parcelled up in crisp brik pastry). Sommelier Rodrigue Palvadeau is brimming with good suggestions on what to choose from his extensive list and well attuned to what’s new in Alsace, including a seductive Pinot Noir from Vignoble des Deux Lunes.
Down in the vineyards in the ravishing village of Bergheim (as good as Riquewihr but with fewer tourist buses) is Wistub du Sommelier, a classic wine bar/bistro that’s a haunt of local vignerons and a favourite with visitors in search of l’Alsace authentique. Owned by Antje Schneider, it’s the place to tuck into home-made foie gras or Presskopf (brawn) followed by ox cheeks braised in Pinot Noir and an iced soufflé laced with Marc de Gewurztraminer. Antje’s list is an Alsace anthology, ranging from near-neighbours Deiss, Lorentz and Sylvie Spielmann to others she would like you to discover such as Beck-Hartweg, Gérard Neumeyer and Clément Klur.
At L’Atelier du Peintre in Colmar’s stunning town centre, Michelin-starred Loïc Lefebvre is one of France’s young chefs who has the perfect riposte to anyone who claims French food is passé. Come here for handsome, contemporary, intensely flavoured food based on local seasonal ingredients served at eye-rubbing prices (the midweek lunch menu is a snip). The chef’s partner Caroline gives a warm welcome and the sommelier is a fund of vinous knowledge.
A two-minute walk away is L’Un des Sens, a wine bar and shop whose sommelier-owner, Alexandre Dumont, is an evangelist for quirky, left-field wines, chiefly organic/biodynamic/natural, mainly French with a strong showing from Alsace. Explain your interests and tastes, a bottle will be offered for sampling (at any given moment there may be 20 whites and 20 reds open, always fresh, thanks to a brisk turnover) and if not to your liking, an alternative is proposed. There’s no kitchen but they serve top-notch charcuterie, cheeses from celebrated Colmar fromager Jacky Quesnot and wicked bread from Le Pain de Mon Grand’Père.
La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim, owned and run by the formidable famille Guggenbuhl, is a favourite of local winegrowers and the venue for celebrated wine-pairing dinners hosted by Decanter World Wine Awards Alsace Regional Chair, Thierry Meyer. Chef Jean-Philippe is famous for his skilled fish cookery (throughout the year shoals of monkfish, brill, skrei, pike-perch, lobster and crabs land in his kitchen), his brimming mushroom basket (days off are spent foraging in the Vosges), his wine list (drawing on top domaines from Alsace to Burgundy, Rhone to Bordeaux) and his winning lunch menu, outstanding value for money.
La Nouvelle Auberge in Wihr-au-Val on the main road from Colmar to the Munster Valley is not just any old roadside inn. Breton-born chef Bernard Leray is in the kitchen and his wife Martine is out front (or down in her wine cellar). The ground-floor bistro is packed with locals who come for their lunchtime fix of home-made terrines, steaming plates of choucroute or bread-and-butter pudding (made from kugelhopf) with wild bilberries and ice cream. Upstairs in the Michelin-starred restaurant there are hints of both the chef’s Breton heritage and his adoptive Alsatian identity: a brilliant green snail fricassee, sweetly dressed crab with fine shreds of pickled turnips, chunky ceps from the Vosges with a foaming sabayon or sweetbreads with a miniature spring onion tart. The all-French wine list leans heavily (but by no means exclusively) towards Alsace, notably the admirable Domaine Schoenheitz, whose vineyards rise up above the village and with whom they stage spectacular wine-pairing dinners.