Each year, October's chill turns the medieval villages and surrounding vineyards along Alsace's Route du Vin into a fall fantasyland. Hillside grapevines sporting brilliant crimson and gold shimmer in bright sunshine. Curlicues of smoke rise from chimneys atop the steep tiled roofs of quaint, half-timbered houses nestled around frosty town squares.
Snug winstubs (wine taverns) along the way serve hearty, aromatic local dishes such as flammekueche (bacon and cheese tart), foie gras en terrine (goose liver terrine), choucroute à l'ancienne (sauerkraut with smoked pork and sausages) and tarte aux oignons (onion tart). Patrons also can dine on rognonnade de veau à la crème d'echalote (veal kidney wrapped in veal filets with a shallot sauce) and cochon de lait rôti (roast suckling pig).
The region's fabulous white wines enhance the cuisine.
Many Alsatian villages have Germanic names -- Andlau, Epfig, Mittelbergheim, Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Turckheim, Wintzenheim, Pfaffenheim, and Westhalten. This is hardly surprising, because the Rhine River and Germany are just to the east.
Alsace, however, is part of France, even though the region is separated from the rest of the country by the Vosges Mountains to the west.
Many of Alsace's best grape varieties, such as riesling, gewürztraminer and sylvaner, also have Germanic origins. However, the region's wine style is decidedly French, with complex aromas; rich, concentrated fruit flavors; superb acidity; great balance; and dry finishes designed to complement the flavors of the area's rich cuisine.
Excessive use of oak is eschewed in favor of producing wines that reflect the true character of the grapes and the distinctive Alsatian terroir.
The region is blessed with soils rich in limestone and clay that permit excellent drainage. The climate is relatively dry and warm, but chilly nights prevent the grapes from maturing too quickly, allowing them to retain their natural acidity while developing complexity as they hang longer before harvest.
The eastern exposure along the foothills of the Vosges also permits maximum sun exposure to enable good ripening.
The roots of winemaking in Alsace go back to the era of the Roman Empire, but it was not until between the 15th and 17th centuries that the quality of the wines gained a wide reputation. Modern firms such as Dopff & Irion, Hugel & Fils, and F.E. Trimbach trace their origins to this era.
Over the centuries, the overall quality of the wines faltered and improved as multiple wars between France and Germany wrought havoc on the economy and vineyards. As late as 1945, much of the region lay in ruins, and several villages were severely damaged by shelling.
Slowly, the winemakers replanted the best vineyard sites, limiting crop yields to improve the quality of the fruit and the final wines. New stars such as Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Ostertag and Domaine Weinbach emerged, while reliable older firms have re-established their commitment to quality.
There is no better way to savor the heartier foods of autumn than with a bottle of white wine from Alsace.