Racy Riesling; aromatic Munster cheese; 180 flavours of confiture; a 50km Sunday stroll and great etchings....
As we peeled off the motorway into the heart of the Haut-Rhin the sun broke through the clouds and Alsace just started to shine. We found the Ferme St Gilles on the edge of Wintzenheim nestling between the edge of the forest and the vineyards. Lily and Dromara climbed out of the mean green mint machine and gaily trotted across their new paddock stretching their well travelled legs. That evening after meeting up with Susan Low - my visiting rider/cavalière invitée for the week we showed them to their new stables - pictures of which were previously emailed to me expressly for Lily's approval by Emmanuelle Gallis from the Cave Turckheim who has done so much work to make this a very special week to remember.
We had an excellent introduction to the wines of Alsace by way of an incredibly comprehensive tasting of wines with Gilbert Brandt of the Cave Turckheim. This is no ordinary cooperative and it is clearly reflected in their wines, all of which told a different story about each different vineyard aspect seen through the eyes of some racy Rieslings and rich, quince-like Pinot Gris. Their wines off the Grand Cru Brandt vineyard are to be rated along with some of the best independent winemakers.
The story of The Great French Ride is definitely gaining momentum. Steven Morris, our trusty photographer (who is also becoming Lily's number one fan!), was in for some serious competition as three local journalists and a TV crew turned up to interview us. We have also had to wire pictures ahead to Pol Roger for L'Union newspaper in Champagne. This whole tour really is a first and the French love of wine mixed with horses and a touch of British eccentricity seems to appeal!
When the sun shines in Alsace it makes sense to do two things: take to a cool cellar and taste some great wines from the 2001 vintage, and then relax with a great picnic under a shady tree high above one of the best vineyards in the Haut-Rhin. Jean Meyer not only made sure we did both but introduced us to a brilliant guide as well. The charming Rémy Buccalli is an artist and an endurance rider who also keeps his horse Mr Choccy at the Ferme St Gilles. Rémy led us through the vines to Josmeyer in Wintzenheim where we tied the horses up in the shady courtyard and descended into the old cellars. Jean Meyer's belief in respecting the spirit of the wine is evident in the quality and individual characters of the wines we tasted from the elegant Riesling Les Pierrets to the richer Pinot Gris from the Hengst vineyard. Their Classic Gewürztraminer had the aroma of ancient English roses - no confectionery rosewater here. As Jean so rightly said - 'Gewürz is the flirt' with its appeal of heat, spice and flowers.
We got back on the horses and climbed up out of the village and cut round the edge of the Hengst vineyard to a shady clearing. As we tied and watered the horses a magnificent picnic appeared out of baskets. Asparagus, cold meats with delicious tabouleh and local cheeses... We too were well watered... with fresh Pinot Blanc, spicy Pinot Gris and a very elegant Riesling. We packed up and rode on through the forest to the Hohlandsburg Castle which was built in 1279 by Siegried of Gundolsheim at the request of the Hapsburgs on a site that had been occupied since the Bronze Age. It has been largely restored since 1985 and it commands magnificent views as far as the Black Forest and Bernese Alps. This was definitely the first real castle that Lily and Dromara had walked into. With Mr Choccy in the lead they confidently marched in as though we were re-enacting some great victory scene.
Munster cheese, the great king of Alsace - it just had to be checked out. This is the cheese that was banned from French public transport at one time and still has a pretty 'strong' reputation. We all agreed that our palates were most in tune for early morning tastings - but Munster at 8am could be quite a daunting experience. We were proved wrong. With our guide Jean Louis at the wheel we drove through the town of Munster and wound our way up a verdantly green valley climbing over 800m to Mulbach sur Munster where we found Margot Kempe's farm tucked away at the end of a lane. 500 litres of fresh milk from their 35 Vogian and Holstein cows was already being pumped into the dairy to be heated - destined to become the king of Alsatian cheeses. They also make a mountain cheese: Emmental de la Montagne which requires the milk to be heated twice. We descended into their cool and rather 'ripe' cellars to watch the cheeses rinsed and turned. This happens every two days while they ripen for a minimum of 21 days as dictated by the appellation. Then it was time to break the soft sandy-salmon-coloured rind and taste the freshest Munster I have ever had. It was creamy to touch without oozing, and smooth on the palate without being too rich with a delicate aroma totally unlike its reputation. Definitely a royal here in Alsace.
As Christine Ferber so honestly put it - the Alsatians love to eat! Who could resist the most wonderful creations that come out Maison Ferber in Niedermorschwihr near Turckheim. They have been baking and creating speciality brioches, Kougelhopf and pâtisseries for both the local villagers and gourmets far and wide since 1959. When Jane Hunt and I met Christine she had been at work since 2.30am to meet deadlines for weddings and a big local party so her brother led us down to their cellar where we saw just some of the array of speciality jams and bottled fruits gently maturing. Christine has just been invited to talk to a group of chefs in Tokyo - her dedication and attention to detail will no doubt be an inspiration to them too.
We met Olivier Humbrecht on the edge of the Brandt vineyard with Jean and one of the most obedient horses we have encountered in the whole of France. Because Jean must steer the plough he cannot hold the reins as well so the horse is trained to respond to the voice. He not only starts and stops by command but knows which new row to commence work on - and doesn't nibble the vines. I felt Lily and Dromara could possibly do with a few lessons...
Olivier explained that he has chosen to use horses to plough his best vineyards to avoid compaction, and to access areas that would be potentially lethal for a tractor driver. By this time it was nearly 39 degrees so Jane and I eagerly accepted an invitation to descend into the cool of his cellars where we tasted some of the most impressive wines of our visit. The aroma of gunflint with a hint of smoky bacon from the Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl 2000 led to such an elegant sleek style that it still beckons off my tasting book page. Another highlight was the Gewürztraminer Wintzenheim 2000 with a nose of fresh lychees - not roses this time. The palate was much dryer than anticipated with plenty of spice and good acidity. Like all its peers we tasted: really well balanced.
That Sunday Jane and I met Rémy at 9.30am to be guided across country and through the vineyards and and high up into the forest and across the fields to Wintzfelden where we had lunch at l'Arbre Vert. I had perch and chips - apparently very typical Alsatian Sunday lunch dish, and most welcome after nearly three hours, riding and walking. We finally clambered back down to the Ferme after one more break in the afternoon at 7.30pm with weary but happy horses. While we washed and fed Lily and Dromara Rémy calculated we had covered nearly 50km... no wonder we all slept so well!
Last but by no means least we visited Félix Meyer of Meyer Fonne in Katzenthal whose wine will go into my Lay & Wheeler case offer. Again, the cool of his cellar was a welcome respite from the glare of the hot June Alsatian sun. The Riesling Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg stood out with its rich aroma but dry elegant steely acidity. But I am now a committed Pinot Gris fan and found the Dorfburg 2000 even more delicious.
Alsace has been very special - I will definitely be coming back, and I don't think I will have too much difficulty in persuading Lily to come too.