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Taste of Travel: France

Vintage Alsace : Through Hills Blanketed With Vineyards, They Searched for Wine Finds Along the Rhine

July 17, 1994|ROBERT F. HOWE | Howe is a Paris-based free-lance writer and author of "Paris Guide," to be published this fall by Open Road

TRASBOURG, France — We had just pulled over to snap a picture of a centuries-old stone gateway marking the tiny wine village of Wangen, in northeastern France, when Eugene Kratz rolled out of the brush on a tractor even more weathered than his tattered cap.

Spying our camera he dismounted from his perch, took our arms and led us across the narrow pavement to his modest timbered home overlooking the valley below. He smiled like a proud father at the vineyards blanketing the nearby hills. Wine is the very soul of Alsace, he said in German-accented French, adding, as he patted his broad chest, "I made some of the very best."

Kratz, 82, then disappeared into his house, retrieving half a dozen brightly colored labels for Riesling, Tokay, Gewurztraminer and other wines that were bottled under his name before he retired in 1985.

Over the next few days, touring the entire 75-mile-long Alsatian Route du Vin that borders the Rhine River, we began to understand the wine heritage of which Kratz is so proud. As a bonus, we discovered that Alsace is home to marvelous food and among the most visually captivating regions in the country.

Beginning in the tiny hamlet of Marlenheim, a stone's throw from Kratz's vegetable patch and about 15 miles west of Strasbourg, near France's border with Germany, we tracked every inch of the regional wine road that wends south from near Strasbourg to Thann. En route, we passed dozens of geranium bedecked homes and busy village squares tucked into the dramatic eastern slopes and valleys of the Vosges mountains. In the distance, beyond the broad plains, the Rhine River sparkled.

Nearly everywhere we looked were fields of vines and cellars where vintners insisted we sit down to sample a choice wine or two.

We spent many an hour in winstubs-- the homey cafes where locals gather for food, drink and gossip. There we sampled traditional dishes such as tarte flambee topped with fromage blanc, cream, bacon and onions, and choucroute , a mixture of sausages, ham and bacon heaped like firewood on a bed of sauerkraut.

In Strasbourg alone there are several well-known and wonderful winstubs loyal to the region's cuisine. Among our picks both for their food and their charm are Maison des Tanneurs, Chez Yvonne and Le Clou. In Colmar we also liked the Maison des Tetes.

In these and other places we were happy to learn that Alsatian kitchens are also home to escargots and foie gras--for which the region is famous--and that we could find dishes as delicate as sole meuniere or as hearty as duck a l'orange.

In the few days before our departure from Paris where we live, my wife, Diane, and I studied up a bit on Alsatian wines, leafing through books and brochures. But our real education came at the countless wine caves that line the wine route itself, where free samples (degustations) are offered, often along with discount prices on bottles and liberal conversation in French, German and, occasionally, English.

At virtually every stop, we were told that Alsatian wines are misunderstood.

"There is confusion between our wine and the German Rieslings, which are really very sweet," complained George Lorenz, 31, whose family has been making wine in the village of Bergheim for six generations. Alsatian wines can be fruity, but remain quite dry, he explained as we sipped several vintage wines with him in the tasting room of his main warehouse last year at this time. And unlike wine from other regions, which take their names from the place where they are produced (Bordeaux and Champagne, for example), Alsatian wines are named for their grapes. We saw and sampled seven primary varieties along the wine road--Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Tokay (or Pinot Gris), Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir. All are white except Pinot Noir.

Setting out early one morning from Strasbourg, we drove west toward the Vosges and began our search for the first leg of the Route du Vin--not as easy a proposition as we had been lead to believe.

Guidebooks insist that the route is well marked, but it really is not and we found ourselves doubling back several times over the next few days in search of the proper road. We were glad we had picked up a wine road map at the tourist office in Strasbourg. It clearly identified each village on the route so that we could watch for signs leading us to our next stop, even when we lost sight of the Route du Vin markers, which were often small and sometimes rather low to the ground. The same or a similar map can be found at tourist offices along the route and at some of the larger hotels.

Despite false starts and turns, we traveled almost half the wine route the first day, charmed by vast vineyards stretching up the Vosges slopes and the tiny villages decked out with planters spilling over with brilliant geraniums, petunias, daisies and other summer flowers.

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