Spring is here and the season of wine festivals has begun. The winemakers of the village of Mittelbergheim (between Sélestat and Obernai) unveil once a year in spring, the secrets of their cellars. A unique opportunity for lovers of Alsace wines to get acquainted with an Alsatian village of exceptional architectural and wine heritage but remaining quiet and almost unknown. They call that special day “Hinter’m Kallerladel” … in Alsatian language it means “Behind the small shutter of the wine cellar” …
Mittelbergheim between plain of Alsace and Vosges mountains …
To fully enjoy the atmosphere of the festival day, and before you zoom into the festivities, lets learn a little more about the village. Mittelbergheim means “village at mid-slope” or “mid-mountain village.” If you arrive from the plain, by the side of the highway, you will discover a town that climbs the hillside between Barr and Andlau. We are there near the Mount Sainte Odile and Obernai.
Mittelbergheim Church steeples are only 30 kilometers away (via straight stork flying) from Strasbourg Cathedral. It is a region where abbeys and monasteries were numerous and powerful since the Middle Ages. As everyone knows, at that time, the monks were connoisseurs in wine and other fine regional produce. As for the local lords, from the top of their castles, they were for sure good living when their quarrels left them some respite. Of Alsatian memory, vines and wine have always been part of the landscape and daily life of the villages on the hills, and particularly in Mittelbergheim.
Limestone, the architect of Mittelbergheim
To understand the village of Mittelbergheim, its history and its people, we must understand its wine. And to understand the wine, you must know its soil (we say terroir in French). As always, what is happening today has its roots in the distant past. Go to the top of the village on the road from Barr. Park your car on the Zotzenberg parking and turn to face the mountain. The vineyard is there, right in front of you.
Turn to the Vosges and the silhouette of the ruined medieval castle of Andlau, in front of you. Forget about cars and homes and make a backward turn in time to land in the dinosaur era. The dinosaurs died 65 million years ago. Imagine we are only a “few” years later, some 53 million years ago … In your back, the Rhine valley collapses along a rift line. So the Vosges are rising. Far behind, the Black Forest is rising as well. Between the two mountains, the sea and sediment will shape the Rhine Valley and form the plain of Alsace. The Rhine will dig his bed between the Vosges and the plain of Alsace, and all that tectonic upheaval will create the Vosges foothills with the so picturesque landscapes. Those varied soils form today the alsatian vineyard, the one you have before you.
Zotzenberg and Sylvaner, Mittelbergheim princes …
More than half of the territory of Mittelbergheim is occupied by vineyards. The wine has shaped the town and the history of its inhabitants. The Zotzenberg hillside is the flagship of the local vineyards and the Mittelbergheim winemakers pride. Accessible from the top of the village, near Barr, the Zotzenberg stretches before you on the slope, facing the heat of the southern sun. The Vosges mountains is a shelter from the rain. The ruins of the medieval castle of Andlau defend the horizon. In short, the Zotzenberg enjoys a microclimate which, combined with its soil, is renowned for its wines since the sixteenth century and gained the prestigious ranking of Alsace Grand Cru in 1992.
To cultivate their vineyards on the Zotzenberg, Mittelbergheim winemakers agreed to completely remove chemical insecticides. Ladybirds and bees are happy, and also the wonderful Tulipa Sylvestris, the wild tulip, which is beginning to re-colonize the vineyard.
While cultivating with success the so-called noble grapes of Alsace (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat), the winemakers of Mittelbergheim are proud of their successful crusade for the Sylvaner grape decried elsewhere. The Sylvaner grape variety is native from the distant lands of Transylvania (Romania) in the eighteenth century. It is prosperous here on the Zotzenberg hill which gives it a special personality. It is far from the higher yields produced elsewhere. The Sylvaner of the Zotzenberg is pampered in the same manner of his cousins called noble grape varieties and reaches in Mittelbergheim the rank of exceptional wine that got its Grand Cru classification (2005). It is also the only Sylvaner Grand Cru of Alsace.
Mittelbergheim, the village with its 80 Renaissance houses …
It is time to discover the village. And here is the surprise.
Mittelbergheim is not an Alsatian village like the others: little half-timbered houses, no colorful facades. We are in the reign of the mineral, the world of limestone. From the late sixteenth century until the Thirty Years War, the Alsatian viticulture experienced a golden age. The best wines were exported to the North Sea countries and some winemakers families have become very rich. The richest and most luxurious homes were built of stone and not half-timbered, which were more for smaller / poorer homes. This is the time when the beautiful cellars of Mittelbergheim were dug. The removed soil stone was used to build the house. And if the stone taken on site were not enough, one would extract more in one of the quarries around the village. It was between 1540 and 1630 that most of the village stone houses were built in a German Renaissance style.
Renaissance gables and roofs of houses in Mittelbergheim
In a hundred years, almost all of the small medieval houses have been replaced by large stone houses. The village of Mittelbergheim in Alsace is unique in the number of medieval stone houses still standing nowadays (80 in all) and in good state of preservation.
Hinter’m Kallerladen, festive day of Open Cellars
Gossips claim that the Protestant which were the majority in the village for centuries, have given it this austere and closed character. It is to make their detractors lie that Mittelbergheim winegrowers decided, ten years ago, to open to the visitors, once a year, what they held most dear and secret: their cellars! Thus was born the day “Hinter’m Kallerladen”, the day when we discover what’s behind the small window of the cellar.
The heart of Renaissance Mittelberheim
This rather special wine festival wis usually held in April. The day of Kallerladen differs from the wine festival which is organized in Summer by its more intimate character. The winemaker invite his family, his friends from neighboring villages, customers and wine lovers. Dress code for the day: jeans, sneakers and backpack! Atmosphere is relaxed and often musical. The agenda is to walk from a cellar to another and from one court to the other, up and down the village. What a program!
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The oven for tartes flambées (a typical Alsatian speciality baked in the oven) remained active throughout the day and the tasting cellars are at full capacity. In his court, the winemaker has arranged tables and chairs. A food truck serves food to visitors. The largest wine houses have musical groups that give the area an air of Summer Music Festival (Fête de la Musique) before time in bright sunshine. Artists offer their creations, craftsmen demonstrate their skills.
The Museum of winemakers Mittelbergheim
Finally, do not forget to spend some time in the small museum of the winemakers, right next to the Protestant church. You will find a beautiful medieval wine press and many other objects used in the vineyards and cellars once.
Wonders of the ancient cellars …
Do not miss the back door leading to the cellar … And then sometimes you may have nice surprises: venerable and majestic wooden barrels out of the shadows to deliver centuries old secrets sometimes.
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Alsace Wine lovers who have made the trip to Mittelbergheim that day were rewarded in fine style: winemakers in the village had taken out from their secret wine cellar, the Oenotheca well hidden under the town hall, a few bottles of older vintages. Some had over 30 years! Frédéric VONE, master sommelier at the famous Cour d’Alsace restaurant in Obernai officiated throughout the day to comment on the wines, guide the tasters, pass on his knowledge and highlight the best qualities of these venerable bottles.
Practical info to prepare your visit
For those who have not spent that memorable day in Mittelbergheim, the winemakers of the village will welcome you throughout the year!
I invite you to download the brochure of the event. You will find the contact details of the winemakers who participated and their location on a map of the village: Brochure Kallerladel 2016
The website of the winemakers of Mittelbergheim: www.zotzenberg.com
This report is sponsored by the Ramparts of Riquewihr holiday apartments.
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