A visit to Alsace reveals rieslings of great quality and people with generosity of spirit, writes Andrew Ryan.
Buried in the most stable nook and coolest cranny of my home cellar is a plain white cardboard box, longer than the average wine box and swaddled to within an inch of its life in packing tape.
It's in the same condition it was when I pulled it from the dirty clothes it was wrapped in after returning from a trip to one of the wine regions of France.
It is a risk to transport wine in a suitcase in this way but when your budget doesn't run to transporting crates of brilliant French wines across the world, it will do.
But this box does not contain Bordeaux first growth or Burgundy grand cru.
It seems only natural that as we make our journeys through wine, we attempt to repeat the greatest moments we have experienced. However, to taste beautiful wines aged to their peak is an expensive pursuit at the best of times, let alone trying to repeat them. One early such experience was a riesling aged 10 years. Its long, complex, buttery, mouth-filling quality inspired the journey that resulted in those two bottles of grand cru from the beautiful French wine region of Alsace that now sit in my cellar and will remain for some time to come.
Riesling is one of the most simple of wines. Though it has emerged from its long-maligned days of the sweet Rhine style that was its identity in this country during the wine boom in the 1970s, it receives little attention in the winery. But, with time, it can turn into as complex a drink as those more famous wines mentioned previously.
Clare Valley is what started it for me, then the Eden Valley. Now Western Australia is producing rieslings of great flavour with cellaring potential.
But to love riesling is to go further in its pursuit – thus a journey to the Alsace. Of all the wine regions in France, the Alsace is one of the most intriguing: its history of being shared (and fought over) between Germany and France, its 500 years of winemaking, its classic geography and its odd characteristic of producing almost exclusively white wines.
We come to Alsace by driving east from Paris – a slow two-day trip on smaller roads that skirt World War I battlefields.
Alsace is the part of France that covers the country's right shoulder – directly east of Champagne, which may be another reason it has not had the impact of other French wine regions. I mean, do you drive past Champagne to drink riesling?
The main towns are – from north to south – Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse. We take up residence in Strasbourg in a reasonably priced hotel but have to move after two days because the EU Parliament is about to sit and accommodation availability at these times does a reversal – an oversupply to a dearth.
Arriving early afternoon we head out, keen for our first taste of Alsace. The main towns of Alsace sit in the plains below the Vosges mountains, with the lower reaches of the Vosges populated by numerous villages surrounded by vineyards. We head south from Strasbourg past the town of Colmar and its beautiful old timber-frame houses and, looking west, see breathtaking view of vines as far as the eye can see.
We make our first stop on the long Alsace "route des vins" in the village of Eguisheim. A road leading through vines bursting with grapes comes to a T-intersection with the village and its ancient houses straight ahead. The houses of Eguisheim are built in rings only a few metres apart – a leftover from Roman times – and there are small cellar doors spread throughout the village's laneways.
We stop at the first winery that takes our eye – Paul Ginglinger on, what else, the Rue de Riesling. A tall man in his mid-30s is behind the counter and he welcomes us with a friendly "hello" and a raised bottle. It is a brilliant tasting. Ginglinger has two grand cru vineyards on either side of the village and the differences between the two rieslings are marked – like the Clare Valley and Eden Valley – one flinty dry but of lovely balance, the other floral and luscious.
The appellation grand cru in Alsace has been in place only since the early 1980s and applies just to the riesling, muscat, gewurztraminer and pinot gris grapes.
In Burgundy and Bordeaux, the closest thing the average tourist will get to a grand cru is seeing a label framed on the wall. Here, the grand cru is free for tasting.
Much to our astonishment, he produces two 10-year-old bottles of his same grand crus for us to taste. It is a surprising, generous and brilliant tasting but typical of each cellar door we visit in the region.
Later we're fortified by a typical Alsatian dinner of baeckeoffe (a casserole-type dish where the meat has been marinated in local wines served in individual dishes) and a plate of good Alsatian charcuterie (smoked meats) with sauerkraut that go well with the local wines. Next day we head out to find the best rieslings.
The two standouts on the day and the most typical of what tasting in the Alsace is all about come from the two most famous Alsace wineries, both in the same village. As you enter Riquewihr, the Dopf cellar door is the first thing you see. Best known for its cremant-style wines, a tasting at Dopf takes some time because there are many to choose from and they are all, generously, available to try.
Cremant is the Alsatian "champagne" – a methode champenoise made from local grapes, which can be pinot blanc, pinot noir, riesling, muscat or a combination of any of these.
Further into the village you must leave the car behind to walk along the cobbled main street behind the town's walls to the cellar door of winery Hugel. Here, again, all its wines are for tasting with the highlights being the 10- and 15-year-old grand crus. The young Monsieur Hugel explains that in Alsace they make their wines for everyone's enjoyment.
There's a lesson here for other wineries that may sell a wine for $100 but don't offer it at cellar door for visitors to taste.
The other striking thing about the Alsace wines is their value. A bottle of a latest-vintage grand cru is less than €20 – the obvious procedure then being to buy them young, put them in the cellar and forget about them.
Now there's a good idea.
Paris is the nearest major international airport to Strasbourg. China Eastern Airlines flies via Shanghai for about $1492, while Thai Airways charges $1941, via Bangkok. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) A number of airlines fly from Paris to Strasbourg for about $105 one way, including tax. The high-speed train from Paris to Strasbourg takes about two hours.
With Strasbourg housing the European Union Parliament, accommodation options are boundless but check when parliament is sitting (see europarl.europa.eu). The Place de la Gare in front of the train station houses several reasonably priced and comfortable hotels. The three-star Hotel Bristol is in a classic French, Haussmann-style building and has double rooms for about €134 ($226). It is near the main attractions. If parliament is sitting and accommodation scarce, Colmar is 60 kilometres away. At 38 Grand Rue, near the centre of the town, the Hotel Saint Martin is decorated in traditional Alsatian style of wooden panelling and fabric-covered walls. It is charming and €100 a night.