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
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
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.
30 rue du Général de Gaulle, Marlenheim 67520, France.
Telephone +33 3 88 87 73 73
Fax +33 3 88 87 68 08
Francis Bown. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For reviews of
hotels and restaurants across the world, visit