Enough tasting, let's drink

Who better than a local to lead you by the nose along the Alsatian Wine Route? Muriel Desaulles does the honours

I happen to come from Alsace. Please note that this makes me French - not German. Alsatian history sometimes gets people confused because the place keeps falling into German hands. Between 1871 and 1919 it was German, and again between 1940 and 1944. But since January 1945, Alsace has been well and truly French and real Alsatians speak real French (even if the British - for some strange reason - still insist on calling an Alsatian a German Shepherd Dog).

Back to my roots, back to my land. I decided to take the Alsace Wine Route (Route du Vin) like a normal tourist, knowing, as I do, that one of the main virtues of Alsace is its food and wine. With the reputation of being heavy eaters and drinkers, Alsatians are known in France as jovial types; having dinner in a winstub (traditional Alsatian tavern) with friends is a confirmation of all the essential pleasures of life.

Tasting wine is an art, but you learn it quickly. The first rule in a wine-sampling is that you are not supposed to empty every drop that is poured into your glass. Tasting does not necessarily mean drinking. If you skip this rule (and I agree, it can be extremely tempting), a Gewurztraminer can easily end up tasting the same as a Tokay Pinot Gris, which would be rather a shame. When you taste a wine, you first look at its colour and texture, then you smell it; and finally you let it tickle your taste buds.

But you don't need to be a connoisseur to enjoy a trip on the Alsace Wine Route. Tasting wine is one thing, but you will also discover the charm and treasures of the wine-growing villages. Meet the wine-growers, taste their wines, lose yourself in medieval villages, admire the Vosges and the ruins of ancient castles. Then visit Roman churches and, far from the crowd, walk the vineyard trails high up into the vines to enjoy the amazing views.

In Colmar, the wine capital of Alsace, I met up with one of the locals (actually, my cousin) who happens to know a lot about wine. We drove from village to village, venturing off the beaten track of the wine route.

We stopped first in the village of Niedermorschwihr, a few miles north of Colmar, from the top of which you can admire a view of the Alsatian plain. It was there that we began the serious business. It was time for our first wine-sampling.

In each village you will have the choice of several cellars, and my cousin knew exactly where to go. We ended up visiting Gerard Weinzorn's cellar, where Mrs Weinzorn welcomed us, ready to open her best vintage. She seemed to see connoisseurs in us, and made straight for her Grand Crus.

Alsace Grand Cru wines come exclusively from 50, strictly defined, vineyard areas, each with its own specific character. We started with a Riesling, considered to be one of the finest white wines in the world, delicately fruity, perfect with the choucroute garnie of Alsace (the traditional cabbage and pork dish). Wines of Appellation d'Origine Controllee (AOC), both Alsace and Grand Cru, are named after the grape variety from which they are produced and are presented in the traditional slim Alsace bottle. We moved on to a Tokay Pinot Gris, a powerful rich white wine, and finished with the famous Cremant d'Alsace, a sparkling wine made by a traditional method, similar to Champagne.

Mrs Weinzorn, a robust woman with a ruddy complexion that tells you something about her liking for wine, works on the production and sale of the wines with her husband and son. She has been a couple of times to Birmingham to promote the export of their wines. "Lots of British venture off the Alsatian Wine Route. Unfortunately, I don't speak English and few of them speak French, so communication is sometimes tricky. But you don't really need to speak in a wine-sampling. They know how to taste and appreciate our wines," she said. Anyway, if your French is less than fluent, brochures on the Wine Route are available in English (and, less surprisingly, in German) in all the villages and in the local tourist offices.

After about an hour in the Weinzorn cellar, it was time to move on. We drove through Riquewihr, a beautifully preserved medieval and Renaissance city with a 16th-century portcullis, then passed Ribeauville, a popular tourist centre dominated by the three castles built by the counts of Ribeaupierre and old towers topped with storks' nests. We finally stopped in Rorschwihr, a village only known by serious wine-lovers. We came across Parisians and Belgians who had stopped in this village for good reason. Rorschwihr is less attractive than neighbouring villages, but it is worth the detour.

The wine-sampling in the Rolly-Gassman cellar is amazing. We stood in front of a table covered with countless slim bottles. We tasted no less than 47 different wines and, believe me, once you had tried one you wanted to try them all. We started with a couple of Sylvaner, quite light and refreshing, carried on with nine Riesling, tried a Muscat, a dry and fruity white wine, and several Pinot Noirs, the only rose or red wine of Alsace with a fruity, cherry-like bouquet.

"Shall we take a short break?" I asked, feeling a little dizzy. Yves Gassman replied in a rather authoritarian tone: "Mademoiselle, serious wine-lovers taste everything, so if you want to reach the end of this list (he was holding out a piece of paper) we had better carry on."

He filled my glass and I didn't dare utter another word. I tasted seven Tokay Pinot Gris and nine Gewurztraminer, including two "Vendanges Tardives", which are exceptional, late-harvest, sweet wines. And we finally savoured three "Selection Grains Nobles". Like the "Vendanges Tardives", these wines are the result of over-ripened grapes, extremely rich and sweet. Only a Gewurztraminer, a Pinot Gris, a Riesling and, less often, a Muscat can get these labels.

The sampling lasted for more than two hours and throughout we discussed the colour, the texture and the bouquet of the wine with Yves and Pierre Gassman, the wine-growers. Rolly-Gassman is a family-run company since 1676, and it exports about 15 per cent of its production, the majority of it to the UK.

"In general, British people mix up Alsatian and German wines. But those who come to Alsace know what they want and appreciate our wines," said Pierre. If you are very nice to the Gassmans, they might take you for a tour of the maceration vats, the barrels and the winepress.

Once again we had been welcomed with open arms, the best bottles had been opened without a second of hesitation, and the locals were really keen to discuss and explain their wines, their culture and their traditions.

After a hard day's work, my cousin and I decided to have dinner in a winstub, eating choucroute and enjoying more Alsatian wines. But this time, rather than merely tasting the wine, we actually got to drink it.

ALSACE

GETTING THERE

Return flights to Mulhouse-Basel cost from pounds 149 with Crossair (tel: 0171- 434 7300) or from pounds 166.50 with BA (tel: 0345 222 111). Return flights to Strasbourg cost pounds 237.50 with Air France (tel: 0181- 742 6600). Prices include taxes.

Wine Trails (tel: 01306 712111) offers escorted wine walks, independent walks and tailor-made gourmet and wine holidays across France. Four nights self-drive with half-board accommodation, including two nights in Alsace and two in Champagne, with multi-course meals accompanied by several wines, costs from pounds 495. Arblaster and Clarke (tel: 01730 893344) also offers specialist wine tours.

WHEN TO GO

The cellars on the wine routes are open all year round. For opening times, ring La Maison des Vins d'Alsace (see number below). In July, August and September there are village festivals on the route each weekend.

WHERE TO STAY

There are plenty of small hotels along the route. The hotel-restaurant Chez Norbert (tel: 0033 3 89 73 31 15) in Bergheim is in a beautiful setting. The cosy restaurant - a converted wine cellar - serves high-quality Alsatian cooking with vintage wines specially selected by Norbert. A double room costs Fr350 (about pounds 40) a night. The hotel also offers special gastronomic packages.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Maison des Vins D'Alsace (tel: 0033 3 89 20 16 20); Bas-Rhin tourist office (tel: 0033 3 88 22 01 02); Haut-Rhin Tourist Office (tel: 0033 3 89 20 10 68); and the French Tourist Board (tel: 0891 244 123, calls charged at premium rates).

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