This time of year, it’s impossible for me to escape the tug of Alsace, a little wine growing region in the northeast of France tucked up against Germany and separated from the rest of France by the Voges Mountains. It’s of those places where wine and food are as much a part of daily life as going to the office, where citizens know that from late September through October you may get stuck behind a tractor or a pickup truck hauling grapes on the main drag, where plates are full and people are hearty, unapologetic, open, and warm. I spent two weeks last October harvesting aside folks who take their vacations every year (some for the past few decades) to come work in the fields at Sipp Mack, a family winery run by Jacques Sipp and his daughter Carolyn with an ecotourism-style hotel and tasting room run by Laura, Jacques’ wife.
In Alsace, the harvest season is the centerpiece of the economy from wheat to corn to apples to grapes, but Alsatian wine is also the most perfect accompaniment to fall food, too. Though most wines are white (a handful of producers make Pinot Noir, but that’s about it), they’re far from generic. Luxuriously rich Pinot Gris, biting and precise dry Rieslings, gorgeous and decadent Gewurztraminers, and plump, pleasant Pinot Blanc cut through the opulence of fall fare and make it sing. Some of the best white wines I’ve ever had are from Alsace, from high-end fancy pants bottles to the stuff I want every day.
This year, I’ll be a little too pregnant to fly across the pond, but looking back through the daily journals I kept those few weeks, I wanted to share (and remember) a few snapshots of my little adventure. Enjoy.
October 1, 2012
Le viens d’arriver à Paris. Early morning, before six a.m. Long lines, lots of people, lots of places. What strikes me overseas is how everyone doesn’t look familiar anymore. Maybe it’s a hazard of living in the city that I live in, but I expect to think I went to college with half the folks I come across, or at least understand that their level of conversation is something attainable for me. All these languages, though…a few from Kenya behind me, China ahead. France, naturally. England. Russia. Where are they all going? Why does it feel like we’re all inhaling our own exhaled air? Is suffocating at border control.
Figured out the train, figured out another, and suddenly I’m in a remote part of France separated from the rest of the country by the Vosges Mountains and from Germany by the Rhine River. Remarkable place, Germanic and French and isolated, country, quiet. Right now, honestly, too quiet. I wish somebody would come and ask me anything, my name or where I come from, other than the gentleman in the coffee car who told me to come visit him in Strasbourg.
Laura Sipp, wife of Jacques, mother of three girls, one of whom works with her dad as a winemaker for Sipp Mack, found me at the local train station and drove me down the Wine Road, showed me where things are and how they work. The Voges Mountains cradle a long strip of vineyards only about 8 km wide and 120 or so long. Sipp Mack, the winery, is a marriage of vineyards from Ribeauvillé and Hunawhir and their grapes come from both places. The top of that long narrow strip is where the Gran Cru sites are, just above is too cold and forest takes over again. It’s modest and quaint and the roads spin up the hill and the traffic going up has the right of way. Houses look German, dark wood reinforcements, but are painted red and purple and yellow. Window boxes everywhere.
Pork on the plate immediately for lunch, the first time I’ve eaten it in years, and it’s the first time this team (because it was the first day of full harvest) has gathered for a meal. I find myself wanting to disappear into their conversation, laugh along and have them all forget I don’t really understand the point of the story, but I do understand that it’s enjoyable and pleasant. Let me dissolve into this curtain, this cup of coffee and watch your familiar interaction, learn your mannerisms and figure out the language I can speak.
Off to the fields just after lunch, suited up in wellies and my lumberjack vest and headed out to where they’ve been harvesting Pinot Gris. Beautiful purple-pink berries, clustered and delicate. That’s what strikes me most as we start pulling them from the vines: they are delicate, juice pressing against its skins in anticipation almost. They erupt often, my hands are sticky through the gloves. It smells wonderful. Botrytis, a good kind of fungus important for developing the flavors of late harvest wines, affects about 40% of the bunches I pick, not all the berries, but enough to make me wonder about what the grapes for the dessert wines must look like. These are still that deep purple-pink-gray color, but frosted with gray powder and shriveled: the fungus pokes holes in the grapes and sucks out the water, concentrating them further. It’s good for whites, but will take the color out of reds. Botrytis is strange, looks as though you’ve blown a candle out as soon as you touch it. A mini-explosion sending up dust at the slightest brush of a hand.
Am paired with a woman named Sophie. She speaks English, she is very tall, and later I find out everybody says she’s usually “not on earth,” that is, her head’s in the clouds. Her talk is all political, often about the Middle East, then shifts to a pageant she seems to have been in recently where she was the Lady of the Lake in some parade. I’m not very adept at harvesting yet, I mostly say “oui” and grunt, but she talks on. Hours, must’ve been about three we were out there. I find it helpful, a sort of hum in the background as I snip these grapes, which I do while contemplating the magnitude of this field, this fruit, and how I am trusted with this labor which is basically the livelihood of the people kind enough to host me in their home though I have zero credentials and only the backing of one person’s opinion as my reference.
Strange foods I ate: Pork. Fleischschnacka (“meat snails,” literally. Sort of like a lasagna rolotini but with dumpling dough, steamed and served with a sweet tomato sauce). Alsatian cheesecake (made with fromage blanc, which I think is sour cream).
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.
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