Our guidebook said that touring in the evening would help avoid the hordes of tourists. We have decided that touring over lunch break is the best time since everyone is sitting down to eat between 12-2. We had our lunch on a bench outside the ramparts looking at the tower and a cart laden with flowers. Then we headed off on part of the longer vineyard loop over to Hunawihr, a few kms down the road. The views from there were equally amazing and we had some great opportunities for some close ups of the different types of grapes.
There was a really cute church that was perched just perfectly in the vineyard. We wandered back to Riquewihr to pick up some postcards and head down to in front of the town hall where there was a tour at 5 pm.
Throughout July and August, the towns in the area organize vineyard walks followed by a free “degustation” (tasting), led by a local viticulturist. We happened to hit on the Riquewihr tour on the day we were there so decided we should go learn a bit more about grapes.
The man lead the tour in French which meant that I listened while Anoop took pictures (because the light was now better…) and then translated as we walked up to the next stop while Anoop scribbled notes furiously. Many of the vines we passed were 50-60 years old – we even saw some 75 year old vines that were in a specially marked off section! The vineyards we were walking through were considered “Grand Cru”. Grand Cru is an official classification meaning wine of the most superior grade, or the vineyards that produce it; the “vignerons” (people who grow grapes for winemaking) need to decide if they want to apply for “grand cru” status in the spring. Then there are inspections and strict regulations on the planting distance, distance between the strings supporting the vines, when you harvest etc. In addition, all “grand cru” vineyards must be harvested by hand and must not be crushed until they are at the press. There is a specific region for which vineyards are “grand cru” – in fact, at the border of the two vineyards, there is a small ditch - on the left, grand cru, on the right, not. The tour leader explained that they had to set a region limit at one point and decided that would be it based on where the sun rose and what time it hit the vines etc. We were allowed to sample many of the grape varieties including those used for Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sylvaner.
It was great having permission to sample them because it is very hard to walk by all the nice grapes hanging in the sun and not try them! Most of them were delicious, especially the muscat, although some of them needed awhile longer to sweeten up. Around 6:30 we headed back to his cellar where he explained about the barrels he uses. He has some large wooden barrels which need to be completely filled up with no air gaps to work properly; the stainless steel ones can be used with any amount of liquid which makes it easier if you don't have a full barrel. When everyone only used wooden barrels, there was a specialist or two in each town who made and repaired them. Now there is only one in Alsace and two across the border in Germany. Each part of the wooden barrel can be replaced separately so it was the barrel maker’s job to make sure that everything was ready for the new harvest. Afterwards, we sat down for a sampling; the husband and wife brought out bottle after bottle, along with bretzels (large soft pretzel shaped bread) and kougelhopf cake for snacking on. We tried 6 whites and 1 red; I have decided that I am still not a wine fan! I much preferred the grape sampling in the vineyard!
We wandered back to camp to eat a late dinner and chat with Mom who we hadn’t been able to catch the night before. We realized as we returned that our internet code had run out and there was no phone booth at the campsite. So we wandered back to town with flashlights and called from the phone booth there. As we were chatting, the thunder and lightning began and we decided we’d better say goodnight as it got closer. Unfortunately we timed it wrong and the skies opened up in a horrendous downpour just as we left. We huddled under a door frame and watched the servers across the street madly trying to haul in all the cushions from the outdoor patio. It really was quite something and the lightning was right overhead. Once it had mostly passed we headed back to camp although we were definitely wet by the time we got there! Luckily we had brought our jackets so we weren’t completely soaked!
Riquewihr is also a "most beautiful village" and “village fleuri” surrounded by vineyards. The towns in the area put out a brochure with smaller walking loops around individual villages or larger loops around several villages. They are marked with signs, have information panels at several points and also mark where there is a good view. We decided to do part of the loop around Riquewihr and then head in to town to explore. The views were wonderful and it was a hot clear day so we could see quite far.The town itself was very cute with lots more half-timbered houses. We enjoyed walking around the streets and reading up on the various buildings and towers. It was also a medieval city so you walk in through the gates with a large tower guarding the entrance.