A pressing engagement

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Against a backdrop of medieval, overgrown castles and breathtaking valleys, the grape harvest has begun in Alsace. Ray Kershaw put in a vintage performance.

By night, with floodlights oozing halos in the haze around its towers and walls, Riquewihr looked the part: a perfectly preserved medieval town. And inside the gates, despite the hive of activity up the cobbled Grand Rue, its restaurants serving baekaoffa and tartes flambees added the finishing touches.

The air was smokily autumnal but still T-shirt warm and, as has happened every October for perhaps 2,000 years, over everything hung the heady, sweet smell of newly fermenting wine. People nibbled fresh walnuts, and every glass seemed filled with bubbling, milky neier siasser - wine from the grapes picked a few days before. In Alsace the vendange was once again in full swing.

The Alsatian Route des Vins winds its way 100 miles or so from near Strasbourg down past Colmar and between the west bank of the Rhine and the soaring escarpment of the Vosges mountains. It looks as wine country should, with scores of ancient villages picture-postcard pretty. Any one of them would be a pleasure to visit, but Riquewihr, at the heart of it all, is something else again.

It sits cramped inside its ring of medieval walls with scarcely a stone younger than the 16th century. There are mazes of alleys between carved and timbered houses. There are flowers everywhere. Riquewihr may not be big, but you can lose a whole day there. In the Thieves Tower you can view the medieval torture chamber. The headquarters of Hugel et Fils, founded in 1639 (family wine firms seldom come older) will have you reaching for a fresh roll of film.

From the top edge of the vineyards the dense Vosges forest, full of deer and wild boar, rises in one sweep to 4,000ft. We set off to explore. At vendange Riquewihr wakes early and as we left the little town the first tractor-load of grapes was already coming in to start the queue for the press. It was one of those mornings of mist and mellow fruitfulness. We could not, in fact, see much, but following the Sambach back towards the heights we filled our rucksacks with sweet chestnuts that were falling down around us on to the forest floor. Later, we found ceps.

The crests of the Vosges are serrated with old castles. The monolithic Haut-Koenigsbourg is today the most famous. Restored by Kaiser Wilhelm, it is now a symbol of Frenchness, glaring into Germany across the Rhine plain. But the best, the most romantic, are the little-known ruins that you have to squirm your way to, or just stumble upon as they lie half- hidden in the trees.

Our map told us that somewhere in the mist was the castle of the Bilstein. Suddenly we emerged into bright sunshine and saw the tower, engulfed by greenery, perched on a crag. It seemed to float, an island in an ocean of vapour. Clearly, few people came here. We ate our picnic lunch reclining against its sun-warmed sandstone; to our north and south were other islands, other castles hovering in a blue sky.

Above the town of Ribeauville - where on the first Sunday in September the fountain runs with wine - there are no fewer than three castles. The men who had them built were not prompted by the picturesque. Since before the days of the Romans this has been a sporadic battleground. And yet the centuries of shifting borders, sometimes French, sometimes German, have resulted in an intriguing amalgam of the Gallic and the Teutonic.

Alsace manages its languages without a second thought. The local daily appears in two editions - every story, every ad, word for word the same, but one in French, the other in German. People talking in the street slip easily from one language to the other.

We observed this same linguistic ease the next day at the Schoenenbourg vineyard, Riquewihr's most renowned. Here we watched three generations of the Bronner family, plus a few friends, hard at work. The vine leaves had turned golden and the vineyard seemed to glow; the town walls at its foot shimmered in the sun. Jokingly they offered us an opportunity to help, showing us how to use the secateurs to cut clusters of some of the world's most expensive riesling grapes. After only half-an-hour our wrists were aching. Yet from dawn to dusk they had been harvesting for more than a week. Meanwhile, down in Riquewihr, every few hours a cavalcade of battered vans decked with boughs of vines, hooting and rejoicing and scattering pedestrians, poured through the narrow streets boastfully proclaiming that their harvest was in.

Later that day we searched out the Bronners at what looked like a tiny house; inside, however, there was the gargantuan kitchen, one corner of which was taken up by a wine press. Here we were offered generous glasses of Schoenenbourg grand cru. Then M Bronner fetched six bottles from the cellar and stuck on the labels he keeps in the kitchen drawer. As a finishing touch he gave us a little discount, as wages for our work in the vineyard.

The gateway for the Alsace wine region is Strasbourg; Eurostar (0345 303030) sells tickets from Waterloo via Paris. By air, Air Inter Europe flies from Heathrow.