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On the Wine Road

by Francis Bown

Vineyards are not always pretty. The empty plains of Bordeaux are a positive yawn. But the Wine Road of Alsace is one of the loveliest 60-mile drives in Europe. Starting at Marlenheim - only 12 miles west of Strasbourg - it meanders south through the foothills of the Vosges from one postcard-pretty village to the next, past crumbling mediaeval towers and ruined fortifications, with a treat for the eye at every corner. And when you reach the end you are only half an hour away from Mulhouse and the Musée National de l'Automobile, where you can drool over 400 classic cars, including three (of seven made) gigantic and magnificent Bugatti Royales. This is my sort of tour.

So I began at the beginning, with a night at the Michelin two-star Le Cerf in the centre of Marlenheim. The Hussar family's hotel and restaurant is a 250 year old former coaching inn - attractive but, naturally, on a rather busy road. And my billet for the night was on the street side, so opening the window was out. Fortunately, the air conditioning was up to the job, so I slept the sleep of the righteous. Room number 6 was £95 a night, bed and breakfast for two and was certainly the tiniest chamber I have occupied for many a year - with no bath, only a shower. But in its dolls' house sort of way it had aspirations to elegance, with ochre walls and spotlights.

I examined the printed instructions to be followed in case of fire. Helpfully, they had been translated. 'Gardez votre calme' had become, in the English version, 'Keep quiet!' I smiled a happy smile, and hoped the Royce was happy too, spending the night in a local farmyard with the assorted Mercedes Benz belonging to my fellow guests.

Down in the dining room, an unusual event. I was drinking alone. This obliged me to examine with an unaccustomed rigour the selection of half bottles. Not at all bad, including 23 clarets and 15 red burgundies. The pleasant sommelière, Audrey Klein, helped me to select two excellent bottles: with my meat a red bordeaux with a perfumed nose and long legs (Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou 1988 - £35), and with my foie gras and with my pudding a well balanced and lusciously sweet Tokay Pinot Gris (Sélection Grains Nobles, Josmeyer - £42).

If you fear that good restaurants in France are all succumbing to new fads, a meal at Le Cerf will reassure you that all is not lost. Bourgeois folk packed this bourgeois room to eat large portions of bourgeois food. A salad of langoustines with artichokes and girolles, fried duck foie gras with plums, roast duck with red cabbage (we are, after all, in Alsace) and millefeuille of raspberries. (£60 for these 4 courses from the carte.) Michel Husser pleases his customers with robust, no-nonsense traditional food. And why not?

So to a stop at the southern end of the Wine Road. After the Royce had negotiated all those winding lanes and narrow streets, we were content but a touch weary as we turned into the long drive of the Chateau d'Isenbourg. This handsome pile, imperiously looking over the town of Rouffach, has had some grand visitors. The Emperor Charlemagne dropped in around 800. For centuries it was part of the patrimony of the Prince-bishop of Strasbourg. Lucky chap - until the zealots of the French Revolution decided to take it from him. But this was not the present building, which dates from the 1820s and the 1890s. Now it is a decidedly comfortable hotel.

Room 22 (£155 a night, bed and breakfast for two) was large and a little dark, which is only right and proper in a castle. It was clearly designed by a keen gardener. The damask of red roses not only covered the beds and supplied the curtains to the single window: it was also all over the walls. The bathroom was tiny, but well equipped.

As I went down to dinner, my expectations were not sky high. While Le Cerf can boast two Michelin stars, the restaurant here does not even have its own separate entry. Which is an injustice, because the food was actually quite good. For my two dinners I tried the lobster, foie gras, beef, lamb, cheeses and rhubarb and peach puddings. Nothing to set the gastronomic world alight, but straightforward cuisine Française, decently done.

There is a problem here, however. Under-staffing. And it seems to apply to both the kitchen and the dining room. On the first night I had to wait half an hour for my pudding. And on the second, 40 long minutes passed after I sat down before even so much as an amuse-gueule arrived before me…

It was a mercy, then, that the wine was good enough to placate me. Both good and mysterious. A few days previously at a three-star restaurant I had enjoyed a bottle of my favourite first-growth claret, Chateau Latour, from the 1981 vintage. Here it was again at £120 - good value. So I ordered it once more. It was remarkable. In the nose: rotting vegetation, tobacco, smoke. In the mouth: dense blackcurrant with exactly the right hint of residual sweetness. In the throat: a joy which lingered and lingered. One of the finest bottles I had drunk for many a month. Yet so very different from the previous bottle, which had been good but nowhere near as good as this. Why?

The 1981 Latour is not that well regarded (otherwise I could have attributed the difference to a poor history for the first bottle), so I am mystified. But the experience prompts me to issue a warning. Wine (particularly older wine) can and does differ from bottle to bottle, and all recommendations - from whatever source - must be treated with caution. Just because a wine writer drinks a bottle of Chateau X from vintage Y and finds it unbelievably wonderful, you will not necessarily have the same experience with your bottle.

A sobering thought as I came to the end of my visit to the Alsatian Wine Road.

LE CERF
30 rue du Général de Gaulle, Marlenheim 67520, France.
Telephone +33 3 88 87 73 73
Fax +33 3 88 87 68 08

© 2002 Francis Bown.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. For reviews of hotels and restaurants across the world, visit www.BownsBest.com

 

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