It’s almost impossible to visit France without being tempted by wine. Even if you aren’t a wine drinker, or know nothing about wine, it’s everywhere. Affordable and delicious bottles sell for €5-7 at Monoprix, and the legacy and heritage of wine in France is world-class. There’s a reason France is one of the most popular regions for wine vacations and wine tourism in the world, and you can find whole websites devoted to wine travel guides!
When visiting Alsace, I didn’t originally intend to learn about wine in the region. I had heard about the amazing architecture and delicious and unique food, so those were my priorities. After a few days, I realized that wine was an important part of what makes Alsace unique, too.
I booked a tour with Ophorus Wine Tours, which operates throughout France. This is a review of my experience, accompanied with a very large lesson in Alsatian history, wine, and culture.
Alsatian Culture & History
History is great, but it can take a really long time to tell. This is especially true in a region like Alsace that has changed political hands many times.
In short, Alsace has in centuries past been part of both Germany and France. It sits right along the French-German border, currently part of France. It is the coldest part of France, located in the Northeast. This climate, along with the location of the Vosges mountains in the west, helps create a rain shadow and temperate microclimate that give the region its unique winemaking properties.
As Alsace has both French and German cultural roots, you’ll find many words that combine both languages, and Alsatian is its own dialect. The region is intensely proud of its heritage, considering itself not a blend of French and German influence but rather the unique product of those two influences to create a unique culture. As our guide, Myriam, told us on our tour, many older Alsatians speak neither French nor German as well as they speak Alsatian.
Similarly, wine is a language that Alsace embraces uniquely. You may recognize varietals of wine produced in Alsace; they are almost certainly produced, aged, and taste differently compared with French wines from other regions. Alsatian wine is almost exclusively white wine, and considerably sweeter than similar white wine varietals in other parts of Europe.
In short, Alsace does things its own way. From language to culture to food and wine, visiting Alsace is certainly part of France, but it’s also a world unto itself.
The Basics of Alsatian Wine
While I’m by no means an expert on wine, it’s worth touching on the important details of Alsatian wines so that you can understand why wine-lovers around the world flock to try these wines.
In the Alsatian region, there are eight main types of wine produced. White wines are significantly more prevalent:
- Auxerrois Blanc
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
The one red wine varietal is Pinot Noir. During our tour, each of these varietals was more or less available, depending on the landscape surrounding each town, the preference of the winemaker, and the vines he or she owns. For example, we never tasted a Pinot Noir or Auxerrois Blanc at any of the wineries we visited, but Reisling was everywhere – often in multiple years, styles, and bottlings.
Additionally, all wines in Alsace can be classified as Grand Cru, depending on the quality and qualifications of the vines, vineyards, and wines. Some wineries also choose to produce bio-dynamique wines, which are classified by standards similar to “organic” standards in the U.S.
Given the range of possibilities for varietals and classifications, plus an excellent terroir (soil), it should be no surprise that there are over 100 wine-making towns in Alsace. Each town has many vineyards, and those vineyards can produce many wines each year.
You could drink a lifetime in Alsace and never run out of choices.
The Perfect 1-Day Alsatian Wine Route
If like me, you don’t have a lifetime (but wish you did), you can instead take a tour of the Alsatian Wine Route. You won’t visit the 100+ towns, but tour providers have carefully selected towns and vineyards that demonstrate the variety of wines in the area.
Mr. Valise and I booked a tour with Ophorus Tours, the most preeminent wine tour provider in the region. Our Alsatian Wine Tour left from Colmar, a town located in the middle of the wine route. The route went to the Haut-Rhin (southern Rhine valley) primarily, visiting four towns and wineries in each. Here’s the route and timetable we took on our Alsatian wine tour:
Stop 1: Gueberschwihr
After starting the morning around 9 am, we headed south to Gueberschwihr, a 20-minute drive. We arrived around 9:30 am and parked in the city center. After a short walk through the cobbled streets, our host had prearranged a tasting at Domaine Ernest Burn.
At Domain Ernest Burn, we tried five different wines: a Muscat, a Sylvaner, a Reisling, and two Pinot Gris Grand Cru. Normally I wouldn’t advise starting off with such an aggressive tasting, but our hostess was generous with her pours and brought out extra bottles for us to try. Around this point, we learned that American wine drinkers have significantly drier palates than our European counterparts – you are warned: Alsatian wine is sweet by most standards.
After leaving the tasting room, we drove along back roads through the vineyards themselves. We stopped to take pictures of the vines in the bright morning sun. The fog that often settles into the Rhine Valley at night began to burn off, and we could barely see the peaks of the Black Forest (and Freiburg in their shadows). The whole of the valley and the ‘Alsatian wine trail’ ahead of us was illuminated.
Stop 2: Eguisheim
Snaking along the slopes of the Vosges mountains, we arrived in Eguisheim less than 15 minutes later, around 10:30 am. Those familiar with “wine destinations of the world” may recognize Eguisheim, as it draws crowds from around the world to sample its wine and enjoy the flower boxes on every home within the walled city.
Our next tasting was a completely different experience, in the modern, upstairs tasting room of Maison Emile Beyer. Located just off the city square, Maison Emile Beyer is a well-known winemaking family that dates back as long as many in the area. The success of wine tourism has helped them build the bright and sleek tasting room, as well as aging facilities farther away from the hustle and bustle of crowds.
Here, we tried a Crémant (sparkling wine), a Pinot Blac, a Reisling, and a Gewurztraminer. Like with other spirits, we were consistently doing our tastings from “light and dry” to “heavy and sweet/spicy.”
In Eguisheim, we also had a lunch break. Mr. Valise and I wandered down the narrow streets to a restaurant known for its Flammkuchen – or Tarte Flambée as the French say. You might remember that I fell in love with this dish in Freiburg, Germany; on the French side of the Rhine Valley, it was equally delicious.
Stop 3: Turckheim
Another short drive took us to the edge of the Munster valley, where we arrived around 1 pm. You may recognize the name from Munster cheese because of course the cheese and the wine are made right next to one another in France.
Here, we parked in the center of the walled city of Turckheim and walked a short ways to a local winery. After a few weeks in Germany visiting walled cities (most notably Regensburg and Rothenburg), I was pleased to see another well-preserved city – this one also adorned with flowers and filled with travelers in search of wine as we were, or following the Camino de Santiago which runs through town.
At the winery Francois Baur, we had the chance to try Alsatian wine that was unique in a new way: it is what the French call biodynamique, or organic and hand-made wine. As I understood it, the wine from Francois Baur is almost (or maybe all) wine grown with no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and grown/harvested by non-technical means. It’s the kind of wine that everyone in San Francisco would be raving about when they charge 200% more than a similar bottle – but it was delicious!
We sampled two Rieslings, a Muscat, a Pinot Gris, and a Gewurztraminer in the dark, low-ceiling tasting room, using a beautifully carved log as a table. Outside, renegade vines grew in the courtyard, and we had the chance to peek into one of their barrel aging rooms before we left.
Stop 4: Riquewihr
Our final stop was in the small but vibrant town of Riquewihr. For those familiar with Alsace, Riquewihr is widely considered a must-see. It is a pristinely maintained walled city with technicolor houses along each narrow street – I’ve never seen a house so blue in my life as I did in Riquewihr!
We arrived around 2:15 pm, with time to explore the main street of Riquewihr before our tasting at Dopff au Moulin winery. Along the way, we were jostled by crowds also admiring the flower baskets and brightly colored buildings. Riquewihr was by far the most popular stop on our wine tour!
At Dopff, we had the chance to sample a sparkling Pinot Blanc, a sparkling Rosé (the only rosé of the day, as this kind isn’t common in Alsace), a Riesling, a Pinot Gris, and a Gewurztraminer. Throughout the day, we always ended on the Gewurztraminer since it has such a strong, spicy flavor!
After our tasting, our guide drove us back to Colmar by around 4pm. If you were counting, we had the chance to try 20 Alsatian wines in one day!
What It’s Really Like to Take a Wine Tour
As is customary when I take a sponsored tour, I like to produce a video so you can not only read what the tour was like but see what the tour was like.
I chose to book our tour with Ophorus Tours as they were by far the preeminent provider operating day-long wine tours out of Colmar. Mr. Valise and I were worried about missing the bus (it’s happened before, like in Cancun!) so we arrived early. Our guide Miriam was wonderful the whole day. Her personality, knowledge, and expertise don’t come across in this video but were integral to our enjoyment of the tour.
Take a look…
More about Ophorus Tours
Ophorus offers tours throughout France, from Bordeaux to the French Riviera. In Alsace, they have many cultural and wine-oriented tours and operate from Reims, Strasbourg, and Colmar. Specific to wine, they again have a large variety. Half-day tours starting at €75 to week-long tours that cycle major portions of the wine route (€1550 per person!).
From Colmar, their half-day tour includes two winery visits and tastings; the full-day tour has four stops. The latter is the tour that Mr. Valise and I booked, and I wouldn’t recommend doing anything less than a full-day if your itinerary permits. Yes, it was a lot of wine… But having the chance to briefly visit four small communities in this particular cultural and historically significant region of France is a good experience in itself.
- To learn more about the half-day wine tour for €75 per person, click here.
- To learn more about the full-day wine tour for €125 per person, click here.
[info]I attended the full-day wine tour from Colmar as a guest of Ophorus Tours. This review and video were created as part of that partnership.[/info]