For a period of about 75 years it was hard to know whether Alsace, the region bordering Germany and Switzerland that encompasses Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse, was French or German.
For most of its history Alsace was French, but it was ceded to Germany in 1871, then given back to France in 1919, given back to Germany again in 1940, then finally returned to France in 1945.
Today, despite its German-named towns, wine varieties, and local dishes, Alsace remains very French. Its tourism statistics of 19 million visitors a year make it a world-class destination with its 15th-century historical sites, romantic villages with cobblestone streets, and rolling hills lined with grapevines.
History and culture buffs, foodies and wine lovers, will enjoy a visit to Alsace just as much as families with children. The region has a lot to offer besides wine tastings. An amusement park based on the children’s book Le Petit Prince, several museums including the renowned Unterlinden Museum, the restored 15th-century Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, and picture-perfect Colmar are just a few of the attractions.
But wine is Alsace’s raison d’être, and during our visit we toured vineyards and sampled wines from three different wineries, which represent the wide range of wines produced here—the majority of which are white (only a few wineries produce pinot noir wines). Fifty-one Alsace wines are designated grand cru, the highest accolade in the French wine industry.
The Alsatian Wine Route stretches for 170 km with over 50 trails for hikers and 1,200 miles of biking paths among the more than 1,000 wineries, where festivals and folk dancing take place from April to October.
We arrived in Alsace a few days before the annual harvest of the grapes in September. With Access Alsace, the region’s business and tourism development agency responsible for organizing our stay, along with A Tout France in the U.S., we took a cultural tour of Colmar and visited a few wineries while trying to remember all the different wines we tasted.
Colmar is one of the three main cities in Alsace and epitomizes medieval and Renaissance history through its flower-bedecked streets. Not only is this where the annual Alsace Wine Fair takes place in August, it’s a charming city that is culturally blessed with its world-famous Unterlinden Museum.
Minutes after our arrival in Colmar by train from Paris, we checked into the newly renovated Maison des Têtes (established in 1609) in the centre of town and then walked to the museum for a tasty lunch of local wine and specialties like duck breast followed by a plum tarte at the museum’s cheerful outdoor Café Schongauer.
We then toured the museum, which is housed in a 13th-century convent and church and has one of the Renaissance period’s most famous art works, the Isenheim Altarpiece, sculpted and painted by Germans Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516. The museum also has an impressive art collection—paintings by Hans Holbein, Lucas Cranach, Monet, and Picasso, for example—and objects that span 7,000 years.
After our museum visit, we were treated to an extensive guided tour of the city by the effervescent Sylvie Moussier, whose roots are Alsatian and who was a former deputy mayor of Ribeauvillé, close to Colmar and well known for its Riesling wines. She regaled us with her delightful banter and knowledge of the region’s history as we walked by medieval homes and she pointed out timber facades, some elaborately painted with Biblical scenes.
We also visited the Bartholdi Museum, dedicated to the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi who designed New York City’s Statue of Liberty. He was born in Colmar in 1834. We ended the day with a lovely dinner at Brasserie Heydel a few steps from the main square.
Wining and dining
The next day was reserved for wining and dining. We began the day at Hugel, established in 1639 and one of Alsace’s oldest continuously producing wineries, in the picturesque town of Riquewihr. The family’s steady exportation of their wines around the world has helped Alsace wines get award-winning ratings from leading wine critics.
In Ammerschwihr we stopped for lunch at Restaurant Julien Binz. Binz was formerly the sous chef at the renowned L’Auberge de l’Ill, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Alsace. After a superlative meal we visited the Valentin Zusslin winery which has devoted itself to 100 percent biodynamic farming—a highly regulated natural and holistic approach to farming—since 1997.
The last winery we visited was Zinck, which produces organic wines and a sparkling white wine called Crémant. We had a delicious dinner at Hotel Le Parc in Saint Hippolyte, another charming village.
Before leaving Alsace we paid a visit to the town of Illhausern and the Hotel des Berges, where we had a sumptuous al fresco breakfast followed by a tour of the well-appointed property.
Alsace is much more than a destination for white wine lovers. It’s a discovery of a gentle, fertile landscape with historic architecture and sights, as well as world-class food.
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.