In Part 1 of In Search Of Wine Along The Rhine, with our shipped docked in the medieval town of Breisach, Germany, we procured six sparkling wines from the Geldermann winery in spite of exhaustion, jet-lag, and hangovers. By the second day of the Rhine river cruise we are recovered from our travel ailments and ready to explore the food, wine, and beer culture of Strasbourg, France.
It’s a beautiful day in Strasbourg and the Viking included tour begins with a guide-narrated motorcoach ride through the German Imperial District and the European Quarter, home to many institutions of the European Union and Council of Europe. While Renaissance architecture and magnificent churches are pointed out by our guide, it’s the nesting storks with tiny baby bird heads stretched up for feeding that have captured my attention. The tour is continued on foot where we see the Old Customs House, covered bridges, and the picturesque Petite France area. The climax of the tour is the Notre Dame Cathedral of Strasbourg with its Gothic architecture and famous astronomical clock.
Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, is known for its unique blending of Frankish and Germanic cultures. The region has alternately belonged to either France or Germany for centuries. The result is a robust wine, beer, and food culture that I was excited to experience for myself. Viking offers a Flavors of Alsace tour and an Alsatian Wine Tasting for additional cost and having read reviews such as this one from Trippin’ Southern Style, I opted to explore freely on my own (and save money). I researched on Google maps and selected a brewpub, Au Brasseur, and a wine shop, Oenosphere, based on their websites and customer reviews, and within easy walking distance of the cathedral (where the walking tour ends, and free time is allotted).
I had read that it was polite to learn a few words in French when addressing the locals, so I learned to say, “Bon jour. Parlez vous anglais?” so I could be directed to the nearest English-speaking person. It’s lunch time at Au Brasseur and we are given menus in French that our waitress has noted we’re not able to read. She kindly points out the QR code on the paper placemat to scan with our phones so that we can access the English menu online, but we can’t connect to the internet. She very patiently retrieves the menu on her own phone and leaves it with me while she attends to other tables. My husband and I were very impressed with her kindness in helping us order. I can’t say I would be so trusting to lend my phone to a stranger. Although we had read that tipping is less in Europe than in the states, she certainly deserved a “USA-sized” tip.
We browse the extensive menu including Alsatian specialties such as sausages and meats served with sauerkraut, home-made spaetzle with a choice of sauces, and an entire page of flammekuechen. The classic “flam” is made of a thin crust topped with cream, onions, and bacon. Like pizza, there’s a myriad of choices for add-ons and we order the “Special” with mushrooms and grated Emmental cheese added.
Au Brasseur brews traditional malt and hops beer on site in four different styles. The Blonde des Bateliers is a light, delicate Pilsner that pairs easily with any dish. Blanche de L’ill is a naturally cloudy wheat beer that is spicy and tart with a hint of citrus. The Ambree St. Guillaume is a mahogany-colored beer made with roasted malt and a noble hops. It has a sweet and spicy aroma, rich toasted flavor, and fine bitterness on the finish. Brune du Quai is a rich, dark beer made with chocolate malt which gives it aromas and flavors of coffee and mocha with a creamy texture. We order the sampler for me and an Ambree for my drinking buddy.
Next, we plan to squeeze in a wine tasting before the shuttle comes to take us back to the ship. Oenosphere, the wine shop I’ve found online, has some reviews that mention tastings, but I wasn’t sure if we needed a reservation. I found a wine bar nearby as backup in case we strike out. We enter with our greeting, “Bon jour. Parlez vous anglais?” and are directed to the manager to ask about a tasting. The store isn’t crowded on a Tuesday afternoon, so he is agreeable.
We ask to taste and learn about local Alsatian wines which I know to be mostly white, but we’ll include their red-wine varietal, Pinot Noir, for my husband who drinks red at home. The manager, sommelier Benoit Eckert, presents three varietals typical of Alsace accompanied by local Munster and Comte cheeses. The first is Domaine Bader Pinot Blanc, a full-bodied, crisp, dry white with bright acidity and aromas and flavors of green apple, citrus, and minerals. The Bader winery and vineyards are located in the heart of Alsace surrounding the town of Epfig. The use of this farmland for vineyards is thought to have originated in Roman times around the location of a Roman fort. The lineage of the Bader family cultivating vines in the area is first documented in diocesan archives in 1642. The family continued to produce wine until 2004 when the vineyards were passed to Pierre Scharsch, another Alsatian winemaker, who has kept the Bader name out of respect for generations of winemaking heritage that came before him.
Our second tasting is the Fritz-Schmitt Rouge d’Ottrott, a classic, red fruit Pinot Noir, medium-bodied with a hint of smoke. The wine has well-balanced acidity, alcohol, and tannins, and pairs nicely with the semi-hard texture and buttery flavor of Comte cheese. Ottrott, southwest of Strasbourg, is one of the few communes that produces red wine in Alsace. The Fritz-Schmitt winery uses estate-grown, hand harvested grapes. Their reds undergo a second maceration step to extract color and tannins from the skins and are aged in oak for several months.
Gewürztraminer from the Herr winery is saved for last. I had tasted some Gewürztraminer that I’d consider syrup-y sweet, but this one is fruity and full-bodied with aromas and flavors of ripe pear and lychee and an off-dry level of sweetness. Domaine Herr produces a wide range of Alsatian wines including Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and Crémant (sparkling) among others. The estate’s vineyards are spread over four kilometers in the coastal plain. Cultivation in different soils and exposures allows the winemakers to highlight different terroirs for each grape varietal.
Alsace Wine Region Fun Facts
The Alsace wine region is located between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River. The mountains shelter the region creating a cool, dry climate with plenty of sunshine that allows grapes to ripen slowly and produce wines that are fruit-forward with complex aromas and flavors.
Popular Alsatian grape varietals include six white grapes: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Muscat, and a single black grape, Pinot Noir. Consequently, 90% of the wines produced are white wines and are not usually aged in oak. The Germanic grape varieties Riesling and Gewürztraminer are produced in a dryer style than their German counterparts and feature bright acidity with floral and peach aromas.
Alsace has three major Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOCs. The Alsace AOC produces 92% white still wines. Cremant d’Alsace produces sparkling whites and rosés that are made in the traditional method of champagne. Limited special vineyard wines come from the Alsace Grand Cru AOC.