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In the latest of his journeys to the world's great wine regions, Nick Tarayan heads to Alsace on the French border in a Mercedes-Benz E 240 Classic Estate
Fairytale villages reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel dot the countryside, and wide formations of hill and mountain give way to sweeps of vineyards and golden pasture: welcome to Alsace.
This is a part of France that has had a difficult, often confusing, history. It sits on the border overlooking the Rhine to the east, while being protected from winds from the west by the Vosges mountains. Running south from Strasbourg to Basel like the backbone of a dinosaur, vines ripen on the eastern side of the range up to an altitude of 1,300ft.
Alsace is a meeting of cultures, traditions, cuisines and - most importantly for this Mercedes tour - wine. Meat, particularly pork, is a staple here. Wonderful charcuterie, sausages and tarte flambée (a bacon, onion and cream flan) are traditionally enjoyed with a glass of refreshing Riesling or Pinot Gris, while the richer, more provocative Gewürztraminer marries beautifully with kugelhof (a cake made with raisins and almonds).
This Mecca for foodies has one of the largest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in France; a meal at, say, the three-starred Auberge de l'Ill at Illhausern is reason enough to visit the region. Here, the signature dish is a whole black Périgord truffle, coated in foie gras and wrapped in pastry, then deep fried and served on a dark sauce of more black truffles - the gastronomic equivalent of a deep-fried Mars bar. Yours for around £100, such a dish sets the scene for a trip best enjoyed with a few boxes of Rennies in the glove compartment.
Almost precisely (and Alsaciennes are very precise) half way down the Route des Vins are the gorgeous, chocolate-box villages of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, our destination on this trip. Our car for the journey was a Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate, which seemed to eat up hundreds of kilometres without even trying. For me, the driver, it was an utterly effortless and comfortable journey.
In Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr we were greeted by steep, cobbled streets and wood-beamed houses with red geraniums spilling out of their window boxes, all crowding together and allowing momentary glimpses of vineyards climbing high behind them.
Those who know some of the wines of this region will see many familiar names in these villages, not least Trimbach, which is based in Ribeauvillé. Indeed, a visit to the House of Trimbach proved the highlight of our tour.
The House dates back almost 400 years, and some 12 generations of the Trimbach family have made wine here. It all began in 1626, at the time of the Thirty Years' War, which ended with the separation of the area from Germany. The region, much of which would later become Holland, was split up and Alsace was bought for France by Louis XIV.
More turbulent times were ahead for the Trimbachs and their region, however. The Prussian armies in the Franco-German War of 1870-71 took Alsace from France, only for France to regain it after World War I and build the fortified defensive system of the Maginot Line between 1927 and 1936.
Driving around the area today, it is impossible to imagine that any strife could trouble this achingly pretty part of the world. The main road south offers spectacular scenery and many of the ancient villages seem to be untouched by the ravages of time.
The region enjoys some of the lowest rainfall in France and boasts an often sunny, hot and dry growing season for the vines. That said, the climate does not lend itself to the full ripening of most red grape varieties and features only one, Pinot Noir, which produces rosé and light red wines.
The main production is based on six white varietals. Each grape has its own distinct character: from the simple, steely yet fruity Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc through to lime-scented Rieslings, rich Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer and, finally, Muscat, which is one of the few grape varieties actually to smell and taste like grapes once it is made into wine.
In this region each producer has his own pet grape variety and there is no doubt that while they produce some stunning examples of other varietals, Riesling is king at Trimbach. It was back in 1898 that Frédéric Emile Trimbach showed his wines at the great International Fair in Brussels, walking off with the most coveted prizes. This guaranteed the House of Trimbach an international reputation and, since then, the wines have been praised and highly rated around the world.
One of the winemaker's top cuvées is named in Frédéric's honour: Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile. It comes from the best, and often steepest, vineyards above Ribeauvillé, which climb majestically from the winery itself and feature vines which are, on average, 30 years old: a great age for a vine to produce grapes with concentration and complexity.
A little further down the road, above the neighbouring village of Hunawihr, is another great Riesling site: the tiny vineyard that produces Trimbach's most prized wine, Clos Sainte Hune. This is extreme Riesling: heavily laden with succulent fruit and a fantastic mineral aftertaste. Annual production is tiny, at around 600 cases, and the wine has the potential to age for 20 years, being best drunk after its seventh birthday.
Jean Trimbach now oversees all wine production with the help of his brother, Pierre. As they showed me, they have stuck to the family traditions, but, like their forefathers, they have made improvements or changes to their winemaking techniques. Nods to new technology, for instance, ensure that quality remains supreme.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a Grand Cru system was set up in Alsace, in an effort to reward those who made wines from the best, very specific vineyards. Unfortunately, many of the top producers feel that the regulations governing these vineyards or sites are too lax, and refuse to use the title on their labels. Trimbach is joined by Hugel, Leon Beyer and a few others, which sell on the basis of their reputations and that of their special cuvées.
Spending time with the Trimbachs proved a great way of unravelling Alsace, which is itself a great place to plot the transition between French and German wines. There is a depth and complexity in
Alsace wines that's very French, matched with a linear clarity that shouts Germany. And, apart from Trimbachs and other fine wines, Alsace is characterised by fabulous, clean, characterful table
wines and some of the best sweet, rich dessert wines you'll find anywhere in the world.
The most beautiful time to visit Alsace is in spring, when the winelands are characterised by pert shoots of brilliant green, or in the summer, when the vines are bursting with luxuriant foliage. But whenever you go, don't forget to stock up on plenty of the finished product to take home.
I had no need to worry on that score: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate offered me more than enough room to carry my booty back to Blighty.
Au Valet de Coeur,
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 73 64 14
Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms backing on to a forest. About £55 per night.
Hôtel à l'Oriel,
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 49 03 13
Comfortable, old-world, town-centre hotel. About £60 per night.
Le Clos Saint-Vincent, Ribeauvillé
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 73 67 65
A modern house with huge bedrooms, set in the middle of vineyards. £100-£150 per night.
Where to eat
La Table du Gourmet, Riquewihr
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 49 09 09
Delicious food cooked by Jean-Luc Brendel has earned him a Michelin star in this lovely old-world restaurant. £60-£70 per person with wine.
Winstub Traiteur l'Altenberg,
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 73 73 97
Funny little place with ghastly ornaments, but pleasant staff and meaty food. Cheap as chips.
Wistub du Sommelier,
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 73 69 99
With its Bib Gourmand accolade and great wine list, this is the place for a leisurely, inexpensive lunch. From £14 per person.
Wistub Zum Pfifferhus,
Tel: (00 33) 03 89 73 62 28
Charming, traditional Alsace restaurant in the centre of Ribeauvillé: as recommended by Jean Trimbach. Honest, great food, which, with plenty of wine, set us back a mere £38 a head.
Eurotunnel Tel: 08705 353535; www.eurotunnel.com
Nick Tarayan drove a Mercedes-Benz E 240 Classic Estate with cockpit management and navigation display.
Engine: 2.6 litre V6
0-62.5MPH: 10.1 seconds
Top speed: 137mph
Nick Tarayan's verdict: There is no doubt that power, comfort and space are the mainstay of this elegant yet understated car. Our visit to Alsace was brief and the journey long. Yet it was effortless in the E-Class, and the ease with which it drove belied its size.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: The petrol versions of the E-Class range can be a bit overshadowed by the diesel-engined offerings in the range, but that says more about the strength of the diesel than it does about any shortcomings in the petrol. The 240 is a very nice cruiser, but what you always come back to when looking at the virtues of the E-Class Estate, is its fantastic, cathedral-like load space. That is, after all, the point of an estate, and the E does it very well.