Eighteenth in a series
August 31, Hunawihr and Colmar — To our surprise and delight, the Sipps were able to join us for a full day and evening of touring. So there I was with the chance to pick up where I left off with Laura some 35 years ago; there we were with the opportunity to get to know Jacques, and to be introduced to Alsace by an Alsatian.
Alsace is one of those best-kept-secret travel treasures. Is it German? Is it French? Well, it’s been both, many times (French, now, since World War II). It’s Alsace, and special. Another hotly contested area. And strategic.
On our way to Colmar, we stopped at the WWII memorial and French military cemetery overlooking the valley. In December, 1944, the U.S. Army had pushed the Germans back across the Rhine and into France. It was unusually cold, so cold that even diesel gas froze. An entire troop of Muslim soldiers, recruited from the French colonies, died almost en masse. German soldiers holed up in buildings and were ordered by Himler to “shoot until they die.” They persisted until February. Finally the U.S., had had it, and with intelligence from the French, began bombing towns that sympathized with the Germans. In the tiny Colmar pocket, just 50 miles long and perhaps 30 miles wide, the U.S. had 29,000 casualties and lost 7,000 soldiers during the battle for Alsace. The Germans took 23,000 casualties and nearly 4,000 dead.
Numbers are faceless. So let me put one face on what happened here. Captain Martin Higgins with Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Army, was trapped in one of the towns below where we stood. When their ammunition ran out, he was captured. Higgins was interrogated personally by Himler and then sent on a 350 mile forced march, first to Poland and then Stalag III in Germany. He escaped and made it through to Allied lines just before the end of the war. For his efforts he was awarded a Silver Star, and Bronze Star with “V” for valor (the same decoration my father received for his efforts on Iwo Jima). Just one of the many brave men who served here — and lest we forget it, women. For more on the history of the Battle for Alsace, check out the historynet article here.
Beyond the fluttering flags, Jacques pointed out the castles that dot the hilltops. The largest was a Medieval castle renovated in the 19th century as a summer hunting palace by Kaiser Wilhelm during the time he controlled this area.
And of course we talked about wine. Sipp-Mack manages 23 hectares or about 57 acres (14 hectares that they own, and 8 belonging to a neighbor, with whom they have a cooperative agreement). They produce 12,000 cases of wine per year and a surprising variety: five different Rieslings, six Pinot Gris’, four Gewurztraminers, two sparkling Crèmants. Twenty-five in all. In addition, they produce several thousand cases of wine that they don’t consider good enough for their label. “When you mix a very good wine with a good wine, you only have good,” Jacques says.
The night that we arrived, another visitor had asked Jacques how he decides which grapes to make into which wine. “The soil tells you,” he said — explaining that the age of the grapes, the specific soil upon which they grow, and the exposure are all factored in. And then that qualitative piece: the art of the winemaker.
I had my own question: what makes a wine an Alsatian Grand Cru?
Grand Cru is a rare designation determined by particular, limited soil conditions and decades of proof of producing excellent Grand Cru quality wine. Neither Laura nor Jacques could remember the last time such a designation was awarded. “It’s the field” that qualifies, Jacque explained. The grapes must be propagated to produce 30% less yield, face south or southeast, and the soil must exactly match the required mineral identity. At harvest, it must be hand picked. In addition, only one of the Noble grapes (Riesling and Pinot Gris among them) may be grown, and wines must be made from a single grape rather than blended. Currently, 51 plots make the cut.
Not all of the grapes below the memorial were healthy. Esca, a complex of fungi that settles slowly in the trunk of the vine, is attacking the area. It blocks the transmission of moisture from the soil to the branches, so the vine dies. The fungus is sensitive to air and will die if exposed; however, when vineyard managers cut holes in trunks to try to eradicate the disease, the effort often fails.
On to Colmar. We ate at “Legumez-moi,” a stall in the covered market (built in the 1860s) operated by friends of Jacques and Laura. Delicious carrot-orange gazpacho (cold soup, more savory than sweet) and a vegetable crumble that came with a green salad. Laura had a kind of patty made from shredded veggies and then grilled. For dessert, a fruit crisp made with mirabelles, the golden plum of Alsace.
After lunch we walked through the town. We wound through lanes flanked by three story half-timbered houses in a color wheel of muted shades: terra cotta, green, turquoise, gold, lavender — many with boxes of red geraniums blooming at the windows.
At 3:00 we met Laura’s tour guide friend Vivianne, another transplanted American. Vivianne specializes in medieval religious art, which is a prime feature of the newly expanded Unterlinden museum of Colmar, the second most visited museum in France. The architects, Herzog and de Meuron, sought to make a statement outside and in. They reopened the long-covered waterway in the courtyard to symbolize the banks where women once did their laundry, and constructed an out-building to represent the convent’s former farm building. The new plaza also connected the 13th century abbey to what was once the municipal baths.
Vivianne walked us through the evolution of religious art during the 15th and 16th century. Artists, like communicators in every time period, she said, must know their audiences, so Mary and other women were portrayed as blonde haired and blue eyed, like Alsatians. Perspective and depth hadn’t yet been accomplished on the canvas, but the grand works that Vivianne showed us next demonstrated leaps in technical accomplishment.
Created by Mathis Gothart Nithart dit Grunewald for the Issenheim monastery, which treated patients with a terrible skin disease known as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” the large panels were once part of an altar that could be opened and closed in accordance with the liturgical calendar. The most unusual of the pieces is an image of Christ risen, levitating above the crypt, with robes in red and blue. His head is surrounded by a golden light that seemed to blast through his face, washing out some of his features. The image could have been created by a New Age artist in the 70s.
We went down one of the many Nautilus-like staircases, popped in to the museum’s collection of old wine presses, and flew past the broad range of the museum’s extensive collection, which also includes 19th and 20th century art. Also works by “Hansi,” Jean-Jacques Waltz, whose charming caricatures were, for a time, popular in American advertising. Then it was out into the warm late afternoon in search of an aperitif. We stopped in at the “Maison des Tetes,” the House of the Heads, owned by the Bourse Aux Vins de Colmar, of which Jacques is a member. The association of a dozen or so winemakers was originally created to help promote the sale of wine; so, long ago, it began to operate bars and restaurants, including this one, which only offers wines made by members of the collective.
Colmar has a lively food scene, including a two-star Michelin restaurant, Gis, that we passed on our way back to the car, and a restaurant that the Sipps have heard is good: Le Frichti’s. Finding a restaurant for dinner turned out to be more challenging than expected: restaurants are often closed on Wednesdays, a problem that was compounded by closures for vacation. But eventually we arrived at Restaurant Taverne Alsacienne, a fine restaurant in Ingersheim, I had a delicious salad of greens, thin slices of mango, forest mushrooms and marinated tomatoes, dressed with a perfect vinaigrette. My “lot,” a monkfish, was served with two prawns on a bed of thin vegetables and a light saffron sauce. Delish.
Next: Timeless Strasbourg