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Treading Historic Alsace Wine Path

May 25, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ROUFACH, France — It's a wine route of poetry and always the unexpected, from the seven grapes of the Alsace vineyards to legendary castles, flower-decked villages and the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer.

Of all the wine routes in Europe, this is one of the least known to travelers from the United States, and yet one of the most bewitching in its setting and story.

As we sit by the window of our room in a "Sleeping Beauty" chateau that has its own vineyards and remains of medieval fortifications, we can see the Wine Route of Alsace-Lorraine winding along the French side of the River Rhine, beneath the slopes of the Vosges mountain range.

Looking out over the spires and towers of the Middle Ages in the village of Roufach, the hills of the Black Forest on the West German side of the Rhine roll south in waves of woodlands to the Swiss Alps.

The Alsace vineyards rise above and around more than 50 villages for nearly 100 miles between Thann and Strasbourg. Three Sundays ago I wrote of our visit to Colmar.

Sleeping Beauty Chateau

We went on from Colmar to drive the Wine Route and walk its footpaths from our romantic base here in Roufach at Chateau d'Isenbourg. The chateau is said by a chronicler to have come back to life like a sleeping beauty from a storied past that began as a castle for Merovingian kings before the 7th Century.

For earlier centuries, the strategic Isenbourg site was on a military and commercial high road of the Roman Empire. There are also evidences that people of the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages defended their settlements here.

In AD 662 a charter was signed at Chateau d'Isenbourg by which King Dagobert II granted the stately property that had been his residence to the Bishop of Strasbourg in gratitude for what he considered the miraculous healing of his son who was wounded while hunting wild boar. Charlemagne stayed at the chateau in the year 800. Emperor Maximilian occupied a suite in 1511.

Rose of Roufach

In the year 1106 the women of Roufach made history by taking up arms in a surprise attack on the chateau to save a beautiful young girl, forever to be known as the Rose of Roufach, who was abducted on her way to Mass at the Church of Notre Dame by an officer of the Royal Guard.

Rebuilt and ravaged many times over the centuries, occupied by German officers during World War II, the chateau has awakened again as a regal guest hotel with 40 suites and apartments, high above the medieval village and the hillside verdant with its own vineyards, complemented by a late 20th-Century swimming pool and tennis court in the garden.

For 11 years the Sonets family has guided its refurbishment, and Daniel Dalibert is the managing director you're sure to meet soon after arriving. The two chambers of the elegant restaurant in the old vaulted cellars date from the 15th and 16th centuries. In the larger Caveau des Princes Eveques are traces of decorative work undertaken by Bishop Conrad of Lichtenberg in AD 1228.

The original Romanesque design of the Parish Church dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption reflects the evolution of architecture from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It is set in a medieval townscape that includes the Town Hall begun in the 16th Century, and the Witch Tower and the house with the vaulted cellar where the Inquisition sat in the 16th and 17th centuries. Beside the cobbled streets are the patrician homes built by early wine growers.

The Seven Grapes of Alsace produce great wines of France in the vineyards all along this winding Wine Route. Reisling, fruity and with a delicate bouquet, is considered "the triumph of Alsace." It is complemented by the light and fresh Sylvaner, the elegant bouquet of Gewurztraminer, the tender flavor of Muscat, the freshness of Tokay Pinot Gris, the full-bodied Pinot Blanc and the delicious fruitiness of Pinot Noir.

'Secret Alsace'

Wine lovers of the region told us that the "secret Alsace" is to be discovered along eight walking paths through the heart of the vineyards, where the individuality and fragrance of the grapes close in around you. Each is a walk of about two hours, with tastings as temptations along the way. Signs along the paths describe the various vines, and tell you what the grower is doing to help the magic of nature.

The eight paths leave from the villages of Turckheim, Dambach-la-Ville, Pfaffenheim, Marienheim, Obernai, Epfig, Traenheim and Bergheimwind. When you learn to pronounce the names, they make their own blank verse poetry.

They also tell of the history of Alsace under French and German flags. In 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was annexed to the German Empire and remained so until the Treaty of Versailles after World War I restored the region to France.

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