For centuries, Riquewihr has produced some of the most beautiful wines of Alsace and the world. Since 1575 it was forbidden in Riquewihr, on pain of a heavy fine, to plant and cultivate anything other than noble vine stocks. This allowed, until the beginning of the 17th century, to produce the most famous wines of the entire Holy Roman Empire.
Alsace enjoys some of the lowest rainfall in France (just 400-500mm or 16-20 inches per year) and Riquewihr is right in the middle of the driest area.
There is written proof of wine growing activity in Riquewihr for almost 1000 years. In 1291, the local lord allowed the village to build its first defence wall. Step by step the little city was gaining the rights for a kind of free / self administration. Organizing the wine growing and winemaking activities, selling the local wines to foreign clients and collecting the taxes due to the lord was the daily task of the local administration as far as 700 years ago.
Schoenenbourg and Sporen, the lifeblood of Riquewihr
“Oops! You made a mistake, it is Schoenenbourg and not Schoenenberg that is written on the labels!” Well, it is probably a detail but it always irritated my sense of logics. The name of that beautiful, long and large hill oriented south and facing the north side of the ramparts of Riquewihr was named Schoenenberg for more than 1000 years. It is written like that in the archives and even today on the maps of the French National Geographic Institute. The “beautiful hill” is the meaning. Schoenenburg (beautiful castle) used to be a small part on that hill. It was later changed into Schoenenbourg to make it sound more French. And finally, this was the name given to the entire hill under the Alsace Grand Cru appellation (1992).
I will not go into details about geological types of soils. For most of the people (including me) it just sounds like hebrew. Let’s keep it short: the Schoenenbourg vineyard made Riquewihr. For centuries it has been well-known that the Schoenenbourg wines have undeniable aptitudes for an incredible long life and can undertake long voyages. They can be shipped anywhere. This was especially important in the past when the wine was travelling with horse carriages and slow boats. As early as the Middle Ages, lords, bishops and monks struggled to buy a piece of vineyard on the Schoenenbourg hill. And even today a lot of winemakers owing parcels of land on the Schoenenbourg hill are people from outside of Riquewihr.
Maybe some day I will write an article with more details about the history of wine in Riquewihr. The golden age of Riquewihr and its wines was the 16th Century. And all the beautiful houses on both sides of the main street of Riquewihr were constructed with the money generated by the wine. How the wine growing activity was all well-organized in Riquewihr is just amazing. But this will be another story.
The Schoenenbourg wines are not only robust but they also have an extraordinary corpulence and complexity. They are THE wonderful and great wine by excellence. But listen: you have to be patient. This is not a wine to be drunk young. You have to give him at least 4-5 years before opening the bottle.
Another grand cru vineyard in Riquewihr is “Sporen”. Sporen is less than half as large as Schoenenbourg (23,70 ha vs 53,40) and its location between Riquewihr and Mittelwihr is not as spectacular as Schoenenbourg but the wines that grow there are also very special and have a great reputation. They are sold under the name of Sporen for centuries. The archives of the Dukes of Württemberg already quote the Sporen in 1432. In 1580 (hey! this is the same year our house facing the Schoenenbourg was built!), the poet Fischart gave the Sporen vineyard the first place among the wines of Alsace: “Doch gegen den Reichenweier Sporen haben Sie das Spiel verloren”. At that time German was the language in Alsace and Reichenweier the name of Riquewihr. The sentence means “Compared to the Sporen of Riquewihr, they (the other wines of Alsace) lose the game.”
Beside the well-known Schoenenbourg and Sporen grand cru there are several other very good terroirs in Riquewihr. You will certainly come accross Weissengrund, Rosenburg, Oberberg or Birgele. Actually all vineyards of Riquewihr are located on the foothills of the Vosges mountains and give an excellent wine.
Grape varieties allowed on the Schoenenbourg and Sporen vineyards are the noble ones: Riesling, Pinot Gris (called Tokay d’Alsace in the past), Muscat and Gewurztraminer. Riesling is the main variety grown on the Schoenenbourg and some Muscat as well. Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris are the main vine species grown on the Sporen.
There are also some other types of vines like Sylvaner, Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc and even some Chardonnay (all white wines). Edelzwicker is not a grape variety but a blend of several noble varieties like Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat or Gewurztraminer. Each winegrower has its own recipe which may change from year to year according to the production of the moment. Also more and more excellent Pinot Noir red wines are produced in Riquewihr and Alsace in general.
In the Middle Ages already, the grape varieties planted on the Schoenenbourg were only noble ones. Someone who studies the history of the vineyard of Riquewihr will find that the vine growers most often had to plant the best grape varieties. As soon as they departed from this rule, their prosperity suffered. As early as 1575 the city of Riquewihr published a law prohibiting the plantation of low quality vine species. A penalty of one pound was applied for each low quality vine stock discovered in the vineyard. At that time it was a lot of money.
Wine tasting at the winemaker’s
You will find several good and even very famous winemakers in Riquewihr. All of them are family run estates. The bigger estates (Dopff and Hugel) are running wine shops in the village where you may step in at any time during the day. In the small family estates, the winemaker himself or wife will let you taste their wines. Unless you are a very big buyer / client, there is no real need to book a long time in advance. When there is a permanent tasting room just push the door. For smaller family estates phone the day before. The weather and the work in the vineyard come first anyway. This means that even if you had an appointment a long time ahead, it might not work when the day comes. Do not forget that you will also have the opportunity to taste the wines of Riquewihr with a meal in one of the many restaurants in the village.
Dopff au Moulin – tel +33 3 89 49 09 69 – Lieu dit Au Moulin. At the lower entrance of Riquewihr, just facing the round-about.
Dopff au Moulin is a very old family estate. In their offices you can see their family tree with roots going back to 1574. Several times through history, the Dopff have proved to be pioneers regarding winemaking. In the beginning of the 1900’s Julien Dopff was among the very first to create sparkling wine in Alsace following the Champagne method. Today the Dopff wine estate is more than ever among the leaders for Crémant d’Alsace. You will find several different cuvées of this excellent sparkling local wine: Rosé, Chardonnay, Wild Brut, Cuvée Julien, Blanc de Noirs and some others. No doubt you will discover one suiting your taste.
And of course Dopff au Moulin will have a wide choice of high quality still Alsace wines from all kinds.
Frédéric Engel – +33 3 89 47 83 88 – 36 rue des Remparts.
Just opposite our Dove’s Nest, Sentinel and Romantic studio holiday apartments, in the narrow and scenic street Rue des Remparts, between the two belts of defence walls, in the upper part of the village. A very small family estate with high quality wines at very reasonable prices. Alain and Yvon, the two sons of Frédéric Engel are continuing the job of their father with wonderful results. I love their Grands Crus Schoenenbourg and Sporen. They have good Pinot Noir wines too.
Domaine Laurence et Philippe Greiner – tel +33 3 89 86 04 68 – mobile : +33 6 08 10 92 61 – 16 rue des Prés (dans la zone artisanale).
A well established family of winegrowers who used to deliver their grapes to a nearby cooperative, the Greiners started in 2006 to become winemakers and to grow bio / organic wines. They built brand new premises outside the historical city. No picturesque wine cellar to see there but great wines to discover. Il like their Grand Cru Schoenenbourg and also the Cuvée de l’Archer, a beautiful blend of several grape varieties.
Domaine de la Tour Blanche – tel +33 3 89 47 92 44 – 18 Rue de la 1ère Armée, in the city center of Riquewihr near the catholic church.
This tiny family estate is run by Daniel & Estelle Klack. The forefathers of Daniel are winemakers in Riquewihr since 1628. The wines are matured in traditional Alsatian barrels (some are 100-120 years old) sitting in their ancient wine cellars dating back to 1557. I like their Riesling Grand Cru Schoenenbourg.
Hugel & Fils – tel +33 3 89 47 92 15 – 3, rue 1ère Armée Française. The tasting room is right in the middle of the historical center of Riquewihr. Practical details about wine tasting and cellar tours on their website.
Well, what shall I say? Is there any serious winelover who never heard about Hugel wines? Hugel & Fils, in Riquewihr, is one of the leading winemakers of Alsace. Founded in 1639, Hugel & Fils vinifies high-end wines from their own vineyards and market, as a wine merchant, the production of selected wine growers and long-term contractors. Strongly established in foreign markets, they export nearly 80% of their wines.
Régine Zimmer – tel +33 3 89 47 85 01 – 42 rue du Général de Gaulle. In the upper part of the main street. A beautiful historical cellar (1572) open all year round where you can taste and buy the wines of the estate. Immediately nearby is their restaurant Tire-Bouchon where you can have traditional Alsatian dishes and drink their wines.
A well-known winegrower family since 1840, the Zimmer family also managed the trading house “Preiss-Zimmer”. From 1999, the Zimmer decide to focus on bottling the wines of their own vineyards: 9 hectares around Riquewihr. 20% of them are Grand Cru appellation.
Wine merchants and restaurants
Boutique VINI – tel +33 3 89 47 99 37 – 27 rue du Général de Gaulle.
And what if you do not have too much time available to go from one wine estate to the other?
Then you have to visit a wonderful wine library in Riquewihr: Boutique VINI. On their website you will read that Boutique Vini is “born from the Hugel family’s passion for wine, extending well beyond its region and national borders, Boutique VINI gives you access to unique references in the world of wine.” The boutique is located just beside the Hugel tasting room. There you will find the wines of many excellent Alsatian winemakers but also top wines of other wine regions even abroad. You can download their wine list and price list on their website but the best is to push the door of their boutique in Riquewihr.
Do not forget that you will also have the opportunity to taste the wines of Riquewihr with a meal in one of the many (more than 30!) restaurants in the village.