I pulled into Hotel Marchal in Le Hohwald, a tiny village outside Strasbourg, at five minutes to midnight, exasperated but wired on adrenaline and caffeine.
It seemed doable, leaving Paris at 3pm – I figured I’d beat rush hour leaving the city, and then I could stop mid-route and find dinner in a small town before arriving around 9:00 or 10:00pm.
After all, according to my GPS, Alsace was technically only a 5-hour drive away. Giving myself an extra hour or two for dinner seemed reasonable... (Note to future self: don’t trust Google Maps, and watch out for hidden radar cameras in the villages.)
It was a miracle that my tiny red SUV and I made it through the narrow, winding country roads of the Vosges mountains, jack-knifing back and forth in the pitch-black darkness, forest on one side, bottomless cliffs on the other. As I entered the lobby, the hotel concierge was putting on his coat and preparing to leave, convinced I’d given up on my stay. I’ll never forget his sardonic greeting, “no need to show me your ID – there’s no one else in town that could possibly have your name.”
Fortunately, a perfect, crystal-clear view of the constellations sparkling outside my window gave me instant solace, the air outside bitingly crisp this far up in the mountains. Looking up at the stars, little did I know I was also gazing at Philippe Schaeffer’s inspiration for his lineup of skin contact wines.
Epfig is a small village just southwest of Strasbourg, home to about 2,500 people ensconced in tiny Bavarian storybook houses, including my Alsatian winemaker Philippe Schaeffer, who was born and raised there. The wooden beams have a purpose besides looking German, Philippe explains. There is a fault line beneath Alsace, and although strong earthquakes have been rare in recent years, the wooden architecture stabilizes the buildings when tremors do occur. How we love purposeful design.
I’d met Philippe through a virtual wine fair in 2020 and until this visit had only seen his face once, over a Zoom tasting. What struck me unexpectedly as he greeted me in the driveway was his small stature; we seemed to be the same in height. Beneath Philippe’s diminutive frame I soon discovered a perpetually curious mind, a driven work ethic and a softspoken, gentle energy that I feel is reflected in his wines.
In his youth, Philippe was exceptionally good at math and science, and quite gifted at music as well – so much so that when his friends would end their nights chasing women, he would stay behind at the bar, drinking and solving equations or formulas. This hunger for knowledge led him to pursue organic winemaking which he began in 2010 and obtained certification for in 2013.
Now, in his mid-sixties, Philippe continues to experiment with new methods in pursuit of more interesting expressions of his vines, such as creating skin contact wines as well as aging in concrete eggs. His latest creation – a line of delicate and delicious skin contact Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris and the rare Klevener de Heiligenstein, each labelled with its own constellation, chosen for the season that Philippe deems the wine to best represent.
Somehow, Philippe manages to balance it all with aplomb. Okay, maybe also with a cigarette or two. (I noticed he never once flicked ash directly onto his property, or even on the sidewalk – it went always into an ashtray or a sewer grate; a class act.) Between managing 12 hectares of vines and 30+ different cuvees almost single-handedly, and personally handling most direct client sales and wine shows across Europe, I’m grateful and amazed that he was able to spend a day showing me his winery, the vines and my very first choucroute garnie.
I wasn’t ready to climb a meat mountain that day, but Philippe insisted on an authentic Alsatian experience, so climb it I did. The Olympus-sized challenge: a tower of glistening boudins, each link stuffed with perfectly seasoned blood, liver and herbs; slabs of bright pink smoked ham and juicy pork belly streaked with fat; glossy Strasbourg sausages, casings snapping upon contact with your teeth (Wrigley Field has nothing on these wieners!) – all piled atop a glowing golden meadow of boiled potatoes and tender cooked fermented cabbage.
Philippe and I scaled our pork pyramid with the help of good Riesling and mustard. I indulged in many delicacies during this voyage, but I think this choucroute garnie was the best thing I ate on the entire trip. We ended the afternoon by driving through a few of Philippe’s vineyards, including on Grand Cru Fronholz.
Before I departed, Philippe kindly showed me the directions to Épernay via the Colmar Tunnel, a seven-kilometre passage under the treacherous icy mountains that gave me so much trouble the night prior.
It wouldn’t be until the end of my voyage that I’d realize Alsace would be the first (and only) place in France I saw any snow on this mid-February trip – more on this later.
Next time: chalking it up to destiny in Champagne.