There is a hushed silence in the wine cellars at the Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg, France. Proprietor Colette Faller, dressed in high-heeled shoes that seem out of place in this damp, dark, packed-dirt-floor cellar, is tapping the wine from a succession of large oak casks for the degustation that is in progress.
"This riesling wasn't harvested until November 27," she says in a reverent, barely audible voice to the small group of Belgian wine merchants who are here to buy her wine.
Glasses now filled straight from the wood, the slurping begins. The cavernous cellar echoes with the sound of five people swishing the wine noisily about in their mouths. Then -- pheutthhit -- everybody does an accurate long-distance spit into a common bucket on the floor.
"Ah! The mouth lives up to the intensity of the nose," exclaims one. Another adds, "How typical of the tokay grape! A lovely hint of smoke." Says a third, "How delicately balanced this wine is!"
It all seems to fall on deaf ears. Mme. Faller has raced off to tap the next cask.
You don't have to be a professional wine merchant to appreciate the delights of the Alsace wine route. A growing number of foreign tourists are discovering the hedonistic pleasures of this 100-mile stretch of vineyards in eastern France. One need only follow the numerous and well-placed signs that say "Route du Vin" to eat in some of France's best restaurants and taste some of her most interesting -- if least-known -- wines.
But the Alsace wine route has more than just wine and food. With the exception of Colmar, a middle-sized town just off the wine route, the vineyard areas are made up of small, medieval villages where 800 years of history are etched into the countryside.
Having changed nationalities frequently over the centuries, Alsatians themselves are a curious mixture of two cultures, combining the efficiency and know-how of the Germans with the charm, philosophical outlook and art de vivre of the French. The names often combine French first names with German last names -- Colette Faller, Pierre Seltz, Jean Hugel, Marcel Deiss and Jean-Jacques Zimmer. Alsatians even speak their own dialect, developed over the centuries. Called Patois, it is a mixture of German and French incomprehensible to almost everyone who is not Alsatian.
Like the history, the cuisine of this region is well worth discovering on the Route du Vin. It too is half German, half French. Sporting names like ku gelhopf (a sort of raisin cake), ba keoffe (a stew with beef, pork and mutton) and leberkepfla (liver dumplings), the cuisine nevertheless is prepared in the grand French culinary tradition.
And of course a trip along the Alsace wine route is a great way to learn about Alsace wines, some of the most unique in France.
I set out recently with a friend to learn about those wines, following the Route du Vin from Marlenheim in the north to Thann in the south, stopping at random to taste wines along the way. Signs are posted at almost every vineyard, welcoming visitors; to taste is free, but we found most winemakers expected us to buy a bottle or two. We quickly learned that the region produces some truly exceptional wines.
Unlike Bordeaux wines, where the chateau name is important, or Burgundy, where the name of the village is what figures prominently on the label, it is the grape variety that marks a bottle of Alsace wine.
There are eight grape varieties grown in Alsace: the chasselas (for everyday wines), the sylvaner, the tokay (also known as the pinot gris), the pinot blanc (also called klevner or clevner), the muscat, the Gewu rztraminer, riesling and the pinot noir. You'll also find a wine called Edelzwicker, which is made from a blend of several different grapes.
Stopping along the route to taste the local wine, we eventually learned -- by repeatedly sampling the same variety in an area -- to identify the grape variety without even seeing the label on the bottle. If we were attracted by a vineyard's sign, or perhaps by the bottles in its store window, we would walk in. Sometimes there were only a few couples inside, but at other places we found busloads of tourists. Everywhere the procedure was the same: We would ask if we could taste, regular wine glasses would be set out and a bottle would be uncorked. Sometimes we were invited to see the cellar.
Wines from the Alsace represent great quality for the money. Unlike the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Alsatian wines haven't been discovered by the strong American market and so are still reasonably priced.
Most vineyards have a printed sheet posted listing their prices. For as little as $1.50 you can pick up a perfectly good, albeit ordinary, klevner. For between $4 and $9 you can buy good sylvaners, rieslings, pinot noirs and muscats. I paid no more than $10 a bottle for excellent 1983 Gewu rztraminers, rieslings and tokays that will be very good in 10 or 15 years. The most expensive wine in Alsace, called selection de grain noble, which is akin to a very good sauterne, sells for about $35 a bottle.
Before setting out on the wine route, we armed ourselves with maps and guides, including an indispensable book by Hubrecht Duijker called "The Wines of the Loire, Alsace and Champagne."
The logical starting point for driving the wine route is Strasbourg -- the capital of Alsace, just 20 miles east of Marlenheim -- and we spent our first night there.
Strasbourg was once the commercial center for Alsace wines, with merchants congregating in the Rue du Vieux Marche' aux Vins (the old wine market street). Today most Alsatian wines are sold directly by the grower or the shipper, but the Vieux Marche' still adjoins a charming, well-preserved section of Strasbourg called La Petite France, where fishermen, tanners and millers once lived and worked. This section of town is well worth a visit, as is the 11th-century Notre Dame cathedral.
We stayed in a friendly, clean hotel on the edge of town called the Villa d'Est, where American television crews who had been covering President Reagan's address to the European Parliament just the day before were whooping it up in the bar.
For dinner, we went to Crocodile for our first taste of Alsatian foie gras. This expensive delicacy was invented in Strasbourg in 1780 by Jean-Pierre Clause, although these days the Alsatians cheat a bit by importing many of the livers from Israel and eastern Europe. Crocodile, one of the best-known restaurants in Strasbourg, has a particularly impressive wine list.
Our exploration of the wine route proper began the next morning in Marlenheim, a village that can trace its vineyards back to A.D. 589. Today the region is noted for its pinot noir, the only grape variety in Alsace that yields both red and rose' wine.
It was just outside Marlenheim -- almost too early in the day under normal circumstances -- that we started visiting wine cellars. Initially, we overenthusiastically stopped to taste at every one of the many signs we saw beckoning visitors. After a couple of hours, we realized that not only were we not getting very far on the route, but since we weren't spitting out the wine like the pros, the road was becoming increasingly difficult to see.
Traveling south from Marlenheim, we came across historic villages that looked as if they'd been untouched for centuries. At Wolxheim we visited the Altenberg vineyard, which is said to have provided Napoleon with his favorite white wine. Then on to Mutzig, which is famous for its beer, and Rosheim, which boasts the oldest dwelling in Alsace, a 12th-century house.
Obernai, which is just slightly off the route, is a lovely little town to visit. It has many of the half-timbered houses that typify Alsace and distinguish it from the rest of France. There's also an old market and a 16th-century Corn Exchange where villagers used to trade local produce.
At a local winstub in Obernai we started sampling the regional specialties. With a plate of sauerkraut we ordered a tourte au vigneron, which looks like a slice of pie with light, flaky pastry surrounding pieces of meat that have been marinated in riesling.
Our next wine-tasting was in Heiligenstein. Since about 1742, this village has been known for its klevner, so we decided to try a glass. A pleasantly aromatic wine, it isn't one of Alsace's greats but it's quite nice to try because it does differ from other grapes in the region. The village is also known for its hand-decorated spice loaves -- made with almonds and ginger -- which will keep for up to two months.
We had arranged ahead of time to see Pierre Seltz -- whose family started in the wine business in Mittelbergheim in 1576 -- because we didn't want to miss the opportunity to talk to him. (Under most circumstances, you can just show up and ask to taste or visit the cellars, although reservations should be made in advance if you're traveling in a large group.)
Along with his American wife, Dolly, Pierre Seltz makes wonderful sylvaners, tokays, Gewu rztraminers and reislings. As president of the Alsace Wine Institute, he is the keeper of a unique record of nearly 700 years of local wine prices and vintage records. Among the typical entries he showed us was one for 1399, recording that "an immense amount of very bad wine" was made in that year.
Further south, high above the village of Dambach-la-Ville, we arrived at a feudal castle rebuilt by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of this century. Now a major tourist attraction, the Haut-Koenigsbourg was built overlooking the Rhine plain, and on a clear day you can see the Black Forest in West Germany.
We arrived just as the castle was closing for lunch. There's a restaurant inside that looks touristy, but the food was surprisingly good. We had tarte a l'oignon, which is a sort of pie filled with a delicious onion filling. Then we had the classic combination of Muenster cheese with cumin seeds and a glass of Gewu rztraminer.
Continuing south, the drive reveals typical Alsatian scenery: Little villages are perched on small hills, surrounded by a sea of patchwork vineyards green with the new vintage.
Bergheim is an old walled city where people who couldn't pay their debts, or who had murdered someone, could seek refuge. As long as they stayed inside the walls of the village, they were immune from prosecution. Just outside the town's gates on the road to Ribeauville', Marcel Deiss and his son, Jean-Michel, have a tasting room. We sampled some very good Gewu rztraminers and rieslings here. (Jean-Michel is experimenting with fermentation techniques in conjunction with a local university.)
Any traveler along the wine route should be sure not to miss Hunawihr and Riquewihr, officially designated -- and rightly so -- as among the 100 most beautiful villages in France. Hunawihr has a fortified church that is literally surrounded by vineyards. The fountains and half-timbered houses, well-preserved after centuries, make it a pleasant place to walk around.
There is an old saying in Alsace: "Anyone who has not seen Riquewihr has not seen Alsace." In his guide to the wine route, Duijker says Riquewihr represents Alsace at its most beautiful. The village is one giant museum.
We saw Riquewihr on a tour, guided personally by Jean Hugel, whose family has been making fine Alsatian wine since 1639. The tour was unusual -- Hugel was showing his village to a group of executives and their wives from De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., the South African diamond trading company. With their personal wine merchants from London in tow, the De Beers people were buying wine for their executive dining room.
Many of the old houses in Riquewihr exist as they did in the 1500s, before the Thirty Years' War. Often the date of construction was engraved in the stone over the door. Engraved over the door as well was the house owner's professional symbol, so that the baker, for example, would have a loaf of bread engraved over the doorpost.
In Riquewihr, you can almost reconstruct the 15th- and 16th-century social structure. The rich had houses built in stone, their own wells and personal wine presses, much of which can still be seen today. The poor had houses made of wood and had to use common wells, which you can also see.
The Hugel family house, with its carved wood window frames and stone engraved doorposts, sits in the middle of town. Jean Hugel, who still uses an ornamental cask built in 1715, is one of Alsace's best-known winemakers. He exports about 80 percent of his production. A tall, jovial man, Hugel likes to tell the story of how he courted his wife by offering her the choice of any bottle of wine in his fabulously equipped cellar. His ardor was dampened when she replied that she didn't drink white wine.
East of Riquewihr, we ate at the Auberge de l'Ill at Illhaeusern, widely-recognized as one of the finest restaurants in France. Situated on the banks of the Ill River with a beautifully manicured lawn and lovely flower beds, the restaurant has some of the best foie gras I have ever tasted. Nearby is La Clairiere Hotel, which is a delightful place to stay for the night: the smell of wild garlic wafts through your windows in the morning and deer play out back. A double room is about $30 a night.
Both Kaysersberg and Kientzheim are worth tours on foot. The ruins of a castle sit atop a hill overlooking Kaysersberg, the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, a village of half-timbered houses and a fortified bridge over a white-water stream.
It was at Kaysersberg that we tasted Colette Faller's selection de grain noble. Like sauternes of Bordeaux, this is a naturally sweet wine. The grapes are left on the vine until late November or early December and are picked individually when each berry has been attacked sufficiently by a fungus called "noble rot." The fungus extracts water from the grape, concentrating the sugar content and producing sweet wine of great quality.
Nearby is the village of Munster, home of the famous cheese. In the mountains above the village are about 30 cheese farms where you can taste the local product. They are easy to find and you can drop in to taste the cheese much in the same way you taste wine.
The biggest town along the wine route is Colmar, which has some excellent restaurants and is a lovely place to walk around. The route continues south to Guebwiller and Thann, where the vineyards give way to meadows and orchards.
There are many places we would like to have stopped. Ribeauville' is said by most guidebooks to be a charming place to visit where you can taste the wines of Trimbach. Ammerschwihr has a restaurant, reputed to be excellent, called Aux Armes de France, which was fully booked when we called for a reservation. (It's wise to phone the good restaurants in advance, as they fill quickly, especially during the tourist season.) In Wintzenheim, it's worth stopping to taste the wines of Josmeyer and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht -- we tasted them in local restaurants.
Alsace is most beautiful in the summer and just before the fall harvest, when the vines groan under the weight of their fruit. Most Alsatian villages have annual wine festivals then. In Dambach-la-Ville in early August, there is a festival culminating with the coronation of a "wine king." To win the royal title, all you have to do is answer some questions correctly, identify three grape varieties at a wine-tasting and drink a liter of wine faster than anybody else.
The reward: your weight in wine!