There’s a saying, ignorance is bliss. I’ve found that to be true more often than not. For example, before studying for my WSET (wine and spirits education trust), I didn’t know a thing about Alsace or its wines. Once my eyes were opened, visiting this region in northeastern France famous for its aromatic white wines, became an obsession. Show me something I like, whether it’s a new song, a new flavor of gelato, or in this case wine, and I can have a frighteningly single-minded focus.
I finally made it to Alsace last October. In Alsace I found the wines I love, and I found a wine community that felt more like my wine-family than any place I have been to date (even after living in Napa Valley). The Confrérie Saint-Etienne is a Brotherhood of wine lovers whose only requirement for membership is that you love Alsace, its wines, and joy. Or to say it another way, the purpose of the Brotherhood is to help share the knowledge of Alsatian wines through gastronomy, education, and nurturing friendships. Count me in!
What is the Confrérie Saint Etienne?
The Confrérie Saint-Etienne in Kientzheim is one of the oldest wine brotherhoods in France, with origins dating back to the 14th century.
Wine brotherhoods are the guardians of Alsace wine making tradition and celebrate the region’s wines both in France and abroad. They organize Chapters at regular dates, and play an active role in wine-related events. The Confrérie Saint-Etienne in Kientzheim, offers a wide range of events throughout the year. It also confers its own quality label, the Sigille.
Taken from the page Wine and Winemaking Culture in Alsace.
The Brotherhood hosts events at its castle-home in Kientzheim. There are Chapter dinners for members, as well as ateliers (workshops) on wine and food pairing, and events open to the public such as jazz concerts. I was lucky that my first evening in Alsace they hosted a Japanese food and wine pairing workshop. Yum!
You may be thinking why go all the way to Alsace to eat Japanese food? The answer is simple, wines of Alsace are beautiful food wines. From the biting acidity of Riesling to the spicy-sweetness of Gewurztraminer, or the earthy notes of Pinot Noir, there is a wine for every type of cuisine. In fact, Alsace has more Michelin-star restaurants than any other region in France.
A new way of learning about Alsace wines
Workshops are informal and generally begin with a glass of Crémant d’ Alsace (a sparkling wine made in the méthode traditionnelle as Champagne), and time to socialize.
Dinner was held in one of the dining rooms of the castle. Each table setting included a program with the menu of wines in order of the course they would be paired with and room to record tasting notes. Of course, there was no requirement to take tasting notes, but it was an opportunity to learn about Alsace wines, as well as enjoy a great meal. I love this delicious new way of learning about Alsace wines.
Before settling down to dinner there was an opportunity to gather in the kitchen and observe the chef preparing the appetizers; to ask questions, make notes, and take photographs. It was presented in French, but don’t worry, if you want to visit or attend a workshop, many people speak English and are happy to translate for you.
Once everyone was seated the first three wines were served – one to pair with each appetizer. The program listed the wines, the appetizers, and the ingredients of each appetizer. It’s interesting to save a bit of each wine to see how the taste evolves in the glass. It is also possible to try any wine with any appetizer that suits you, though each pairing is carefully chosen. Who knows – wine tasting is subjective – you may discover a pairing you prefer. It’s all part of learning about the wines of Alsace.
Japanese food and Alsace wine pairing
Here’s the menu: Atelier Sukiyaki avec Yoko Tsuji
- Auxerrois 2016 Cave de Cleebourg
- Pinot Gris 2014 Francois Braun (Orschwihr)
- Riesling Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim Gustave Lorentz (Bergheim)
The information on the wine labels follows this format: the name of the varietal, the vintage, the winemaker followed by the vineyard designation. So, with wine number one you have the grape Auxerrois, the vintage is 2016, and the name of the producer and region is Cave de Cleebourg. Cleebourg is the name of the area or village where the auxerrois vineyards are located.
1.Tofu de potimarron au caramel et gingembre: (Potimarron, kuzu, lait et crème fraîche,sucre gingembre, graines de courage). This was like a custard of pumpkin and creme fraiche garnished with ginger. It was my favorite!
2. Salade de poulet å la sauce miso/sésame: (Blanc de poulet, concombre, carottes, cresson, sucrée de sésame, miso, miel, sauce soja, vinaigre de riz, graines de sesame) This is a chicken salad with miso, sesame, honey and vinegar.
3. Marcha soba sushi: (Nouilles japonaises au sarrasin et au thé vert matcha, omelette, choux, rouges, ciboulette, algues nori, surimi, sauce soja sucre), this is a matcha-soba buckwheat noodle made like a sushi roll, with soy sauce.
Pinot Gris 2015 Frey Schohler (Scherwiller)
Pinot Noir 2003 Jean-Baptiste Adam (Ammerschwihr)
Pinot Noir 2015 Materne Haegelin (Orschwihr)
Sukiyaki: Legumes, tofu, champignons, viande de boeuf, sauce soja, bouillon japonais å base de poisson et algues, riz
If you don’t know what Sukiyaki is, it’s a kind of hot pot consisting of a broth made with soy sauce, rice vinegar and saki; vegetables (mushrooms, bok choy, bean sprouts, and other vegetables) tofu, egg, and paper-thin slices of beef. You cook down the veggies in the broth, then each person at the table cooks their meat to their preference. It’s a little like the idea of fondue with everyone taking turns. It’s a delicious and fun community meal.
For dessert, there was Gewurztraminer, a wine I came to love while studying for my WSET. Gewurztraminer from Alsace is not like anyplace else. The saying is: Go for the Riesling, stay for the Gewurz. If you are thinking no way, sweet wines are awful- read this great article from Wine Folly.
Dessert wines in Alsace are called vendages tardives. Not every vintage is right to make this wine because the grapes must be able to hang on the vines long enough to receive botrytis or Noble Rot. It sounds a bit weird, but actually it’s divine. Read about Noble Rot here.
If you are not familiar with the grape varietals of Alsace read: A Consumer’s Guide To The Wines of Alsace
After dinner, we all headed down to the cellar where the Confrérie has a library with over 65,000 bottles, some dating back to the 1800s. As a special treat, another bottle of wine was opened, this time a 1996 Riesling! This is the beauty of Alsace white wines that many people don’t know, you can age them a long time.
I learned a lot during my evening with the Brotherhood Saint Etienne and, I left wanting to know more. Whether you decide to visit for the excellent food and wine, to learn more about Alsace wine, or for the friendly company, I promise you will make some new travel memories.
Becoming a member of the Brotherhood
There are three levels of membership: apprentice, companion, and master. You must study and pass some curriculum which becomes increasingly more difficult as you move through the levels, and there must be a period of one year between each level. In case you’re wondering, women too can be Grand Masters and members. However, you don’t have to be a member of the Brotherhood to enjoy workshops and other events at the castle. It’s a fun way to learn about the wines of Alsace and also some history and culture of the region. If you’re interested in more details about the Brotherhood and membership you can read this article by my friend Jean-Paul, who has achieved the companion level.
If you go:
There is a museum open daily from 1st of June until the end of October, and weekends in May. Groups can book a guided tour all year round and tastings can be booked for groups of 10.
Chateau de la Confrérie
1 Grand Rue Kientzheim
F 68240 Kayserbert-Vignoble