Part 6 of a 2006 Alsace/Paris travelogue
by Thor Iverson
29 March 2006 – Ingersheim, France
La Taverne Alsacienne (99, rue de la République) – Be wary: there are at least a half-dozen restaurants in Alsace that carry this name. This is the one in the (only?) pretty corner of Colmar-exurb Ingersheim…the one with the excellent food and the unbelievable wine list. It’s more formal than one might expect for what is otherwise a cramped, bustling restaurant full of lurid pastels. The service is diffident; neither the effortless formality of a starred establishment nor the brusque efficiency of more casual dining. But it doesn’t matter much, because the food’s solid. I have goose foie gras with a mango/passionfruit chutney and pink peppercorns (hard to go wrong there, as long as the foie gras is good…and it is), then duck breast with dual-preparation potatoes, a variation on ratatouille, and mushrooms (mostly chanterelles) with random root vegetables strewn about the plate. This dish is good, but a little confused and haphazard. More importantly, the duck’s slightly overcooked; not inedibly so, however, and given the number of elements on the plate I’m loathe to send it back. I go conservative for dessert, with a perfectly fine and regionally-ubiquitous kugelhopf glacé.
From a list full of well-aged and invitingly-priced Alsatians, we’re inexplicably browbeaten into a far-too-young Rhône. Hey, these things happen, though I’m not sure how.
Chave 2000 Hermitage Rouge (Rhône) – Very tight and stinging – a leather strap whipping the tongue – with sun-charred earth and blackberry roots. It’s chewy but lithe, and while it’s very well balanced and quite long, the midpalate’s oddly slender. With around a half-hour of air, it improves dramatically, showing more leather (decoupled from its earlier, more sadomasochistic expression), softly meaty elements, rich blackberry, and smooth hints of cherry-infused chocolate. Pure elegance. It is, perhaps, not “great”…or, at least, not right now…but at Chave, that’s a contextual assessment that flows from a very high standard.
Bergheim, France – After a drive through some sun-glazed vineyards west of Ingersheim, a sunny post-lunch stroll around this magisterial fortified village is a relaxing way to work off a half-dozen of the thousands of calories we’ve consumed (and indirectly absorbed) over the past few hours. The outer walls feature beautiful vistas of fields, vineyards and mountains, while the center of town showcases the region’s typically exquisite half-timbered architecture, here supplemented by forbidding churches and imposing post-governmental structures.
Riquewihr, France – Often an overcrowded, showy venue for separating tourists from their euros, Riquewihr (one of the very few Alsatian villages to survive multiple wars in a mostly intact state) takes on a very different feel after the visitors head home. A few locals take a pre-dinner stroll, and the most impatient and unacculturated foreign diners begin to settle in for mediocre choucroute and baekeoffe at main street tourist traps, but for the most part the village’s vivid colors and asymmetrical geometries are shadowed and (relatively) quiet. As long as one doesn’t want to buy or taste anything, it’s a fine time to visit.
Kaysersberg, France – Even more shut-down than Riquewihr (at least from a tourist standpoint), this historic and elegant village is beginning to enliven with early diners and the beginnings of rural Alsatian “nightlife.” All street activity coalesces around the two main pedestrian routes, leaving the back streets free of motion (except for the occasional finger-sniffing cat). It’s exceedingly peaceful, but all the aromas drifting from the back windows of kitchens and restaurants are starting to make us hungry. And so, back to the gîte we go.
We’ve got white asparagus with a buttery blood orange sauce (unfortunately, the peeler provided by the gîte is woefully inadequate to the task, leaving the asparagus hacked-up and yet still more than a little stringy), a small leg of lamb, and some leeks…followed by cheese. What we don’t have, however, is a red wine. Normally, in Alsace, I’d choose pinot gris to go with lamb – it is, after all, a red grape – but I don’t have any of that either. Poor planning on my part.
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Lovely, cream-textured and mildly sweet, with cinnamon, milk, celery and tomato…a bizarre-sounding combination, but it works in this wine. Green, sunny, and fully mature.
Boxler 2004 Riesling L30M (Alsace) – Crystalline sweetness with ripe, almost tropical apple slashed by shattered mineral brilliance. Drying, structured and extremely long, but what stands out most is the wine’s lively, vivid presence.
The riesling’s sheer intensity is more than enough for the lamb, even though the organoleptics don’t quite match, and the sylvaner’s surprising density is a fine foil for the asparagus. Neither much goes with the cheese, but at this point we’re liquored-up enough to not care. A late-night walk to the village’s solemn church provides a little head-clearing, and as it turns out we’re leaning against its fortified wall, staring at the moonlit vineyards below, as its bells chime midnight. Perhaps it’s just the wine, but the tones seem to reach down and grab at something beyond the physical. We walk, quietly and thoughtfully, back to the gîte, and fall, full-satiated, quickly into a deep sleep, the bells still echoing in our dreams.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.