Drive time in Alsace
This is my favourite time to play,” said Jean, as the sun threw long shadows across the fairway at Kempferhof on the first afternoon of November. “Aren’t the colours fantastic?”
Le Kempf as he calls it, is my friend’s home course near Strasbourg, tucked away in a woodland park threaded by waterways distantly connected to the River Rhine.
I was looking for my ball at the time, swishing at a carpet of leaves with an increasingly angry wedge, so I didn’t feel quite so sympathetic towards golf in the autumn. But there was no denying that the carpet was a pretty colour.
I got to know Jean a quarter of a century ago in Val-d’Isere, the most alsacien of Alpine ski resorts, where he and his brother ran a ski school and served riesling in plastic cups to friends and clients every evening at apero time.
When Jean changed direction to run a hotel in his native Strasbourg on the border with Germany and work on his handicap at le Kempf, I followed him there and fell under the spell of a course which combines the charm of a secret garden with the challenge of an 18-piece puzzle bracelet. Every hole asks an awkward question, or several.
After ditching balls in the water for the last time, we shook hands and made for the bar. It was a moment for honesty. Playing at le Kempf is always a treat but this course, often rated in the top half dozen in France, deserves to be looked after, but, during my round, signs of neglect could not be ignored. Greens were patchy, tee boxes a little ragged and some bunkers churned up. Did golfers consider the rake unworthy of their attention?
Jean told a familiar story of declining membership and financial pressure. On a positive note, the club has a new owner with deep pockets and a wife who plays golf. The fees have come down and golfers are coming back. “There is still a lot to do,” said Jean, “but le Kempf is on the right track.” We drank to that and I mentioned my plan to mix golf with a tasting tour on the Alsace wine route, the prettiest in France.
“You must go and see my friend Henry Fuchs,” said Jean. “He supplies some of the best restaurants in France.
He’s in the middle of Ribeauville, you can’t miss him.” A quick phone call, and I had a date.
One could stay in some style at the Kempferhof: golfing convenience, a good dinner and a quiet night guaranteed.
Jean’s hotel, Le Dragon, proposes a different formule: an inexpensive billet ideally located for exploring the sights and enjoying the nightlife of old Strasbourg, close enough to the cathedral, but not deafeningly so.
“Many golfers like to go out in the evening,” says Jean, and for those of us who do, he can recommend cosy winstubs and restaurants off the tourist trail, with bottle-bottom windows, low wooden ceilings, noisy conversation in guttural Alsatian dialect and waitresses bearing regional dishes at an honest price: tarte a I’oignon, foie gras and gewurztraminer jelly, choucroute garnie, tete de veau, baeckeoffe (a meaty hotpot).
“A glass of gewurz to go with your foie gras, M’sieur? Then you can move on to pinot blanc.” All the Alsace cepages are available by the glass, so there is no need to deal in half-bottles or select a compromise wine when food choices diverge.
After a stroll through Petite France, a pretty network of weirs and waterways overhung by timbered houses, I quit Strasbourg and headed for wine country. It isn’t far.
The Alsace wine route runs north/south for more than 170 kilometres at the foot of the Vosges, a green corduroy skirt between plain and mountains, picked o out with scores of pretty villages.
On a bright morning in the autumn it makes a ravishing scene. The first frosts have transformed the green skirt to a sheet of shining gold beneath the tawny forest that cloaks the mountain, and the villages have got their life back after the departure of the tourists. Most of Alsace’s beloved storks have flown the nest too, but a few ignore the call to migrate and stay for the winter. One looked down on me from its nest on the sous-prefecture roof at Ribeauville while I searched for Henry Fuchs. Eventually, he came out into the road and waved me down.
“Sorry,” said my host. “We don’t have a sign, because we don’t need publicity.” For reference, he is one up from Fulweber’s garage on the road to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.
“It was our wine you used to drink in Val!” said Henry, posing with his son Paul in front of a barrel carved with the family fox. Both did time ski instructing in Val d’Isere before coming back to the family business. Father has now handed over to son, who makes organic wines of high quality, including a delicate pinot noir to confound any prejudice we may harbour about Alsace reds.
For the winemaker, climate change is part of life. “We have to adapt to it,” said Paul. “North slopes are coming into their own and the harvest starts earlier, although 2016 was an exception to that, after a cold, wet spring.”
In contrast to the rest of France, 2016 gave Alsace a generous harvest. There was almost no disease, which is good for the yield although not for late-harvest dessert wines which depend on the famous noble rot. “We will try to make some this week,” said Paul, and with that he made off, back to his late-picking labours in the vineyard.
Mirror, mirror… Of all the painted villages on the wine route, with their cobbles and corbels, fountains and towers, nearby Riquewihr is the fairest of them all: the most perfectly preserved and neatly hemmed in by the wall-to- wall carpet of vines.
Its film-set prettiness makes Riquewihr a huge tourist attraction, but out of season, it reclaims its life as a working wine village. After pausing to cross themselves as they pass the crucifix that stands at the foot of every Alsatian vineyard, weary pickers bang the mud off their boots and unload the day’s harvest in the courtyard before hosing down the tractor.
Easily found at the village gate, the house of Dopff au Moulin welcomes visitors, and Philippe is my guide for what is more than a tasting tour. “This is a family business going back to 1574,” he explains in a reception room full of family portraits. Etienne Arnaud Dopff is the 13th generation.
Shell-motif decoration on the staircase is a reminder that the wine road is on the pilgrimage route to Spain. Not all passing travellers have been so welcome. “The mountains separate us from France, and the Rhine from Germany,” says Philippe. “Between the two it has not always been comfortable to live.” Countless armies and marauders have trampled this European corridor down the centuries, most recently in the winter of 1944/5 when the so-called Colmar Pocket saw intense fighting between German and American forces. In nearby Ostheim one wall is all that remains standing of the old village, with a stork’s nest on top and a memorial to the liberators. Set back in its fold of the foothills, Riquewihr kept its head down and escaped damage.
The Occupation years are a painful memory, not much talked about.
“All the men were sent away to fight, so our women had to tend the vines and make the wine,” the guide said.
“The Nazis stole everything, but we know production went on because we have some wine from 1944, bottled after the liberation.”
At last, a drink. Riesling is the elegant dry white, perfect with fish. Pinot gris, formerly known as tokay d’Alsace, is a more voluptuous mouthful, “not to be confused with your thin supermarket pinot grigio.” Muscat makes an excellent aperitif, and the perfumed gewurztraminer is the Alsace cepage that sells best in Britain – “because of your taste for spicy food.”
The best vineyard plots produce Grand Cm wines from these four grape varieties. “Now I’m in the forest with blackberries… and now in my garden with strawberries,” Philippe says dreamily, savouring the complex nose of his favourite gewurz.
Of the lesser plants, pinot noir is Alsace’s only red grape, not always used to make red wine. Sylvaner is less widely grown these days, while pinot blanc is on the increase because of the popularity of sparkling cremant. “Champagne is finished here,” Philippe says crushingly. “Only snobs bother with it for weddings and parties.”
It was the revered Monsieur Julien Dopff who first applied methode champenoise to Alsace wine in 1900, selling it as ‘champagne d’Alsace’ until the producers in Reims put a stop to that. The Cremant d’Alsace appellation came into being in 1976, and Dopff celebrated the 40th anniversary by popping many corks of Cuvee Julien, a fizzy snip at €10 a bottle. “Appetising but not dominating,” says Philippe; “you can drink any red or white wine after it. Sante!”
After much sniffing and spitting, and a fair amount of swallowing, it was time to swing a club once more.
Alsace is either very flat or very steep, and Ammerschwihr belongs to the steep part: of no course could it be more truly said that golf is a game of ups and downs. The upward holes are a stiff test of technique and temper, but the views from the top of the course, over vineyards and village roofs towards the distant mountains of the Black Forest, repay the slog. Few tee shots are more inviting than Ammerschwihr’s 14th, a par five where even a modest hitter’s well-aimed drive will bound down the hill to within chipping distance of the green. Smash a long ball, and you might even dream of a double-albatross hole in one.
Returning to the plain with time on my hands, I followed a road sign to the Alsace Golf Links, more out of curiosity than expectation. Links is an evocative golf word often taken in vain.
In the clubhouse, a rustic farmyard complex with a stream and an old watermill, a man of unmistakably British appearance jumped up from his computer and introduced me to his dog Bogey. David Abercrombie – “from Northern Ireland, as you can probably tell” – is a golf architect with a portfolio of European courses to his name. He was about to build a 36-hole resort in Hungary when this place came up: a widow with no one to take over the farm. David saw the potential, found a backer, fell for a French girl… “so I’m here for keeps.” The course opened in 2000 and he is still building it, moving and shaping as finance permits.
“Rather than me tell you what I’m trying to do, why don’t you play?” he said. “Start where you like. The course is quite empty.” In fact it was quite busy with golfers knocking the ball about at a fair clip, defending their space as they have every right to do. But I found a few gaps and got the picture: firm and fast-running ground, with lies as tight as they like it on the links of Antrim and Fife. The real thing.
Course furniture is kept to a minimum and the transition from fairway to fringe to green is almost imperceptible. “It’s links golf without the weather,” David says. His course is a revelation and great fun to play, especially in the autumn when the going on its parkland neighbours can be soft to soggy.
On my final morning, I fitted in a game at Soufflenheim with two German friends who live just across the Rhine, 15 minutes from the club – full title Golf Club Soufflenheim Baden Baden. Membership splits 50/50 between the two nations, and the style owes as much to German order as Gallic charm; more, arguably. All boxes are ticked: a restaurant, apartments, an academy, a short course and a long one, by the German golfer Bernhard Langer.
His course presents a stern but fair challenge, as one might expect of the man. Water is the main threat, and Langer has placed it on one side or the other of the fairway, or frequently both. Play straight, and he will not ask you to hit a ball over any water until the short 16th. Accuracy before power is the watchword here.
Whatever one thinks of the low hedges that skirt many of Langer’s lakes – more of a hindrance than a help, I found – the course is impressively well kept. While Kempferhof works on its recovery plan this is Alsace’s golfing Grand Cru.
After our game, my friends proposed lunch at their favourite fish restaurant in the village of La Wantzenau, which also has a golf course made mostly of water. With regret, I had a train to catch.
La Wantzenau’s golf, and fish lunch, will be something to look forward to next time.