As unassuming as it appears, the northern Route du vin between Wissembourg and Soultz-sous-Forêts should be taken seriously as an alternative to its big sister (the actual Route du vin) through central and southern Alsace.
While the latter, particularly along the main route, is overrun with tourists and coaches, the former has unspoilt quiet villages along the northern wine route which the occasional adventurous traveller makes an attempt to visit. Here, you will notice that a number of villages make themselves especially attractive during the holiday season.
However, traditions are still bound within the hilly wine-growing area around Cleebourg that this mini-region has not lost any of its original charm. If you want to, you can easily complete the entire northern wine route within two hours – but if you take a day or even two over it, you will find it much more rewarding.
The route itself is circular, and Wissembourg forms its starting and finishing point. Because of the gradual increase in the effect of the sights (and the delights of various degustations), it is advisable to follow the route in a clockwise direction.
Wissembourg, Steinselzt and Shoenenburg
First of all, leave Wissembourg in a southerly direction and head towards Oberhofen. Then turn left and go via Steinselzt (nearby lies the Geisberg, where on 4 August 1870 the Franco-Prussian War began with the Battle of Wissembourg) to Riedseltz. Carry on through the little wine village of Ingolsheim to Shoenenburg (incidentally, it is worthwhile taking a ten-minute diversion to Hunspach, which is considered one of the most beautiful and complete half-timbered villages in Alsace).
While in Schoenenburg, you should make an attempt to visit another reminder of the wars and conficts between Germany and France: the narrow, endlessly long barracks, where the troops of the Maginot Line were quartered at the beginning of World War II. The Maginot Line was strongly fortified near Schoenenburg. However, this area is not just a reminder of war: it bears also the signs of reconciliation.
A row of vineyards to the west of Schoenenburg belongs to families of German descent, from the Palatinate, which has let to the well-known German saying that the best Palatinate wine grows in Alsace.
Keep travelling south to the little town of Soultz-sous-Forêts with its picturesque old town, and then turn off in a westerly direction towards Merckwiller-Pechelbronn. This town is not actually on the Route du vin, but still it is worth seeing for another reason.
Until fifty years ago, it was the oil metropolis of Alsace! Doubters may go and take a look round the Oil Museum, which is also open on Sunday afternoons in the main season in July and August. As early as the Middle Ages, peasants here were using crude oil to grease their wagon wheels. They then went on to refine the oil (hence he name Pechelbronn, from German Pech = tar) and use it for medicinal purposes.
The oil boom of Merckwiller is gone for good, and the little town has gone back to its medicinal traditions and has become a spa. Treatment is not carried out with oil products, but with the medicinal waters of the hot springs which were discovered in the neighbourhood of Merckwiller.
From this point on the route turns north once more. Via Lobsann and Drachenbronn you will reach Cleebourg, the northernmost wine-growing community in Alsace and also the place which has given its name to this wine-growing region. The Pinot of Cleebourg, and especially the Cleebourg Riesling, are more highly regarded by many connoisseurs for their exquisite dryness than the rival southern wines.
As far as the wine is concerned, it is better to pay little attention to the opinions of others and to rely on your own tastebuds. There is an excellent opportunity to try that out next to the central Cleebourg wine celler, in the restaurant A la Cavêde Cleebourg. However, if you pass through at midday or in the evening, don’t just enjoy the wine on its own, but order pheasant on a bed of sauerkraut, an Alsatian speciality.
The restaurant is situated only half a mile past the turn-off to Cleebourg, but don’t let that tempt you to pass by the wine village on the other side, so to speak. A stroll through the main street, lined by beautiful half-timbered houses and barns, is highly recommended. Perhaps, it would seem distinctly odd to the modern traveller to think that this village actually once (in the 17th century) belonged to the Swedish! crown.2