Road Trip to the Middle Ages: A Drive Down the Alsace Wine Road
To be published in Journey magazine, Fall 2011
With my two-door rental Renault rattling over the narrow, cobbled streets, I keep getting the feeling I’m driving through a medieval fairy tale. Though Alsace is the smallest region in France, it’s hard to fathom how much history can be crammed into such a small space. Renowned for its castles and legendary for its wines, it’s widely believed that the first Alsace vineyards were planted by the Romans in the first century AD. Add in sweeping rural vistas and more wine-tasting caveaus than you can stomp a grape at, and this drive through the Middle Ages may just be one of France’s best road trips.
Nestled in France’s northeast corner, the Alsace wine road snakes for 170km through forested foothills and inviting villages that boast sing-song names such as Obernai, Zimmerbach, and Eguisheim. Admittedly not very French sounding, the Alsace region has changed hands 17 times in the last 20 centuries, giving the visitor the ultimate cultural two-fer of German architecture blended with French laissez-faire. Though spaced but mere kilometers apart, each village nonetheless trumpets its own collection of wine tasting chateaus where visitors are welcome to sample some of the region’s 7 fabled varietals.
Renowned for its dry, fruity Rieslings and spice-laden Pinot Gris varieties, those who prefer a red wine can indulge in the oaky, full bodied Pinot Noir that serves as the region’s lone red. Geographically blessed, its position on the eastern flank of the Vosges Mountains makes Alsace one of the driest regions in France, which when mixed with a mosaic of soils that range from limestone to sandstone account for the region’s ability to provide such a wide variety of grapes.
For a more intimate encounter of the growing process, head out onto one of the 26 walking trails that wind through the earthy vineyards. Or, if all the tasting has you seeing sideways, take a trip back to the 12th century inside of Haut Koenigsbourg Castle, an imposing medieval fort where young princesses would stealthily mingle with knights and proud King’s could gaze to the horizon over their legions of vineyards and peasants.
Heading to Alsace? Tips for Alsace Wine Road Success:
-Never drink and drive
-Be a vigilant navigator
-Remember that most establishments close from 12-1:30pm for lunch
-Spend a night in a village such as Eguisheim and tour the town’s wine cellars by foot.