Earlier this week we featured Rudesheim of Germany as one of our top Christmas markets to visit, especially for Riesling fans – as the town is also known for some of the most ageworthy, traditional off-dry to luscious German Rieslings. A drive down south from Rudesheim to the region of Baden in Germany, head west for about 30 minutes, you will find yourself in Alsace. To us, this is the best place in France to spend Joyeux Noel.
Alsace is home to the oldest Christmas markets in France and whole of Europe. Regional capital Strasbourg’s first Christmas market was hosted all the way back to 1570 in the heart of Strasbourg Old Town. For wine lovers, a trip to the heart of Alsace wine region and you will find smaller scale yet equally charming Christmas markets in Riquewihr and Colmar. In fact, Christmas markets are traditional fixtures in Alsatian cities and towns – if you start your trip from Strasbourg and head all the way down to Mullhouse, you will find yourself coming across a good dozen of Christmas markets along the way.
Whilst Strasbourg is remarked for its historic significance, Colmar Christmas market has, over the years, claimed the spot to be the second most visited Christmas markets in the region all thanks to the town’s well-preserved German-French influenced architectures. Snow-cladded, colourful timber-framed wood houses, twinkling fairy lights over spiraling steam from copper pots of warm mulled wine – this is Christmas brought vividly and heart-warmingly alive.
Needless to say, each year Alsace attracts a lot of visitors during Christmas period, all of whom are drawn to the magical, other-worldly ambience Alsatian Christmas markets create. The magical hours start right around 4pm as the sun began to set. In winter, expect an early arrival of night-time around 4:30 to 5pm. To witness the change of colours of the sky over a bite of gingerbread or a warm glass of vin chaud couldn’t be a better idea. In half an hour of time, you will get to see in your own eyes how Christmas market looks like in a postcard.
What to drink when you are in the land known for aromatic whites?
Alsace has long been known for its sheer diversity of soil. Vosges mountain and River Rhine together shape the region’s superior south-facing sites of varying soil types. Decomposed pink sandstone, schist, granite, limestone, clay, gravel, chalk, loess form the mosaic of soils that can be found in Alsace. Different combinations and dominating soil types provide for different aromatic profiles, textures and acidity impressions for wines chiefly made of the four noble varieties: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat.
How do I infer style and quality of wines of Alsace just from reading the label?
In general, you can make reference to the indication of Alsace, versus Alsace Grand Cru to gauge a fundamental idea on the quality of the vineyard, and thus its grape output and resulting wines. For those well-versed in Alsatian wines, you would have found out for long that the ultimate safeguard of quality lies in the producers’ skills and the specific single vineyard site within the Grand Cru-recognized area. Alsace Grand Cru has been faulted for covering a rather substantial area and thus often do not represent uniformly superior quality. Some leading producers have therefore opted to highlight specific single vineyards, instead of the whole Grand Cru designation. Knowing those famed single vineyards will be most helpful in identifying the best wines of the region.
Knowing varietal profiles and where superior single vineyard sites lie will help you shortlist wines to try. Finally, understanding the terms “Vendanges Tardives” and “Selection de Grains Nobles” save you from any surprises. If you are looking for dry wines, steer away from bottles with the above labelling terms. When you find Vendanges Tardives on the label, it basically means that the wine is made from berries from “late harvest”. It can possibly give you either a dry or a sweet wine. Alcohol level reading could help but is no guarantee of style since Alsace is perfectly capable of giving off-dry to sweet wine at 14% alcohol. Selection de Grains Nobles, often times abbreviated as SGN, is a sure sign that the wine is rich and lusciously sweet. Those are some of the crown jewels of the region.