Le Tour des Vins de France (part two)

After a week of hard drinking racing, the peloton will have earned its high altitude rest day on 12 July. The race continues with another punishing Alpine stage in which the riders must haul themselves over four different climbs culminating in the Col de la Madeleine (2000 metres above sea level) and you may want to join them in spirit by lining up four different wines from a dazzling Savoyard selection. The high altitude and dry soil of this region is only suitable for specific varieties of vine that are rarely cultivated elsewhere. So fill up while you can. Look out for Jacquère, Roussanne, Altesse and Gringet whites and Mondeuse reds. The stage finish is in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne where the iconic French Opinel brand of penknife is made. So celebrate by getting out the whetstone and introducing your blade to a few hearty Savoyard cheeses. Tome, Beaufort, Abondance and Reblochon would make a fine quartet for a dégustation fromages et vins.

14 July is Bastille Day and stage 10, from Chambéry to Gap, runs south through Savoyard mountains, revisiting the perilous descent of the Col du Noyer where, in 2003, Lance Armstrong, no doubt considering a retirement investment in a Savoie vineyard, decided he would take a closer look at the terroir by leaving the road for a spot of high velocity downhill cyclocross. As they pass through a succession of villes en fête, the riders will be able to look west across the valley of the Isère river to the charming mountains of the Chartreuse, home to a bright green herbal liqueur invented, as one would expect, by hermit-like Carthusian monks. It is reputed to possess five distinct tastes as it trickles over the tongue. See if you can count them.

From beneath the shadows of the citadel at Sisteron, the Tour bids farewell to the Alps on stage 11, running 184.5 kilometres, mostly downhill, skirting the Luberon National Park, to a stage finish in Bourg-lès-Valence. This is the heart of the northern Rhône valley, home to Syrah grapes (known by colonial types as ‘Shiraz’) that are noted for accents of green olive and smoky bacon. This makes a good bottle of Rhône wine a balanced meal in itself. If you’re feeling the financial pinch then you’ll be excused for declining the more prestigious AOCs of the region and opting instead for a good value Côtes du Rhône, usually dominated by Grenache grapes.

At over 200 kilometers, Stage 12 promises a long, hot day in the saddle, particularly for any riders who have chosen to forgo their cycling helmets in favour of one of the felt hats made from the fur of pet rabbits in Bourg-de-Péage, today’s ville de départ. We’re in the southern foothills of the Cévennes and the stage finishes in Mende, gateway to the dramatic Gorges du Tarn and home to the delicious croquant de Mende, a variation on Italian cantucci: small, elongated biscuits, made with local almonds and hazelnuts. Assuming no nut allergies you might wash down a plate of croquant with a Kir Ardechois, made by adding a hazelnut syrup to the unremarkable local white wine.

Stages 13 and 14 make a bee-line south for the white-crested mountains of the Pyrenees. Along the way the peloton passes through Castelnaudary, famed home of its very own cassoulet. It would be exceptionally unwise for any athlete to partake of this artery-hardening feast of goose fat, preserved pork and white haricot beans but we spectators have no concerns other than the selection of a sufficiently robust red to compete with the slick of grease that emanates from a successfully cooked cassoulet. Fortunately the dry, stony garrigue soils of the region make for the perfect wines for this dish so you won’t have to look too far.

Stages 15 and 16 send the riders on a grueling two-day traverse of the Pyrenees, from Pamiers to Pau, only for stage 17 to send them back over the col du Tourmalet: so tough they’ll ride it twice. It’s a hundred years since an ascent of the Tourmalet was first included in the Tour de France and struggling riders will be forgiven for recalling the rebel Octave Lapize and diving into the refuge at the summit (2,115 metres above sea level) for a bowl of Garbure, a hearty mountain stew of vegetables and confit de canard. It’s traditional in these parts to accompany La Garbure with a glass of dark red Madiran and, when the bowl is nearly empty to pour a slug of wine and mop up the last few drops with a hunk of crusty bread. Suitably fortified, it’s back on the bike.

Stage 18 is a pancake-flat romp from the salt marshes of Salies-de-Béarn through the sandy pine forest of the Landes to Bordeaux, the beating heart of the French wine world. A hundred and twenty thousand hectares of vines boasting 57 appellations d’origine contrôlée, more than 5,000 châteaux and some of the most prestigious names: Pétrus, Yquem, Mouton Rothschild and Cheval Blanc. The riders have nothing but the individual time trial to worry about the next day, and I hope to see l’esprit d’Anquetil in evidence after today’s racing, with the Grand Cru flowing, and teams of soigneurs bearing huge piles of glistening crustaceans and great vats of foie gras while the podium girls spoon out the Iles flottantes.

The time trial of stage 19 ends in Pauillac in the Médoc AOC and riders who can get an advance on their race bonuses will be able to fill their suitcases with famed Chateau Lafite, a bottle from 1787 being the most expensive wine ever sold (US$ 156,000) on account to it having once been owned by American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson (though evidently never consumed). Then it’s onto the high speed train for the next day’s brief, 102.5 kilometre showboating stage 20 into Paris.

Every rider who crosses the line at the Champs Élysées can look back on the preceeding three weeks with a sense of achievement and the realisation that he has tested himself in one of the world’s most arduous athletic contests. No less satisfaction will come to the oenophile who has traveled alongside and through his or her own endeavour has once again proven the truth in the words of Benjamin Franklin, another, rather less puritanical Founding Father: “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”

Santé!

These posts are dedicated to the memory of Sarah Ponsonby, who died earlier this year and is dearly missed. Sarah enjoyed a good wine and, from her vantage point on a large and very comfortable sofa bang in the centre of France, was quite happy to watch Le Tour on television, assuming the horse racing and the tennis weren’t on.

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  • http://www.owenphilipson.com/blog owenp

    brilliant post.

    god i love beaufort. reblochon too, ‘specially as part of a tartiflette. best enjoyed after spending all day burning thousands of calories skiing/snowboarding in the alps, as it’s not the best athlete food. (so maybe relevant to this review, but then again, no- a winter dish).

    Does this year’s route go anywhere near Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

  • Lou

    Another excellent couple of posts. This is so quick, however, so many great wines left on the side of the road (Nuits Saint Georges ! Régnié ! Sauternes !). It’s nice of you to mention the garbure as well !

    Cheers !

  • Jack

    @ Lou: there’s always 2011…

  • ken of the north

    racey ….very racey !