Le Tour des Vins de France (part one)

Saturday sees the start of this year’s Tour de France, the world’s biggest annual sporting event. While the athletes will be subsisting on little but Lucozade and saline drips, we spectators can thankfully pass on such revolting fare and instead charge our bidons with the finest vintages and watch as the scintillating landscapes of La Belle France unfold before our eyes (live coverage on ITV4, I’m told). What follows is a handy guide for those who’d like to match their wines with each of the twenty stages of the three week race.

The race begins with a short Prologue stage in Rotterdam and since Holland is known neither for its wines nor its beers, and the only Dutch drink anyone has ever heard of is a foul-tasting bright yellow gloop made from raw eggs, I recommend sampling the intoxicating herbal ‘infusions’ for which the Netherlands is famous for having decriminalised.

On day two the race is run between Rotterdam and Brussels so you’ll probably want to put aside your bong in favour of a few Belgian beers, for today and tomorrow the riders will be on the hard roads of Flanders. There are far too many to choose between, from peach-flavoured girly-weak ‘lambic’ beers to the aptly-named Delirum Tremens boasting an alcohol content of 9 per cent. Among my own favourites is the smooth amber Palm Speciale, which Londoners can find on sale at cycle cafe-bar Look Mum No Hands!, and the light and hoppy Orval, profits from the sale of which are spent on the upkeep of the monastery where it’s brewed and other charitable good causes. So the warm, fuzzy feeling is not just from the beer.

The riders who survive the hellish cobblestone farm tracks of Flanders will quite rightly be looking to celebrate their good fortune and so it’s fitting that stage 3 of the race will deliver them into the heart of the Champagne region. Land eligible to grow the precious grapes that go into the fabulous French fizz trades at over a million euros a hectare (compared to a few thousand euros a hectare for identical land just outside the borders of the appéllation d’origine contrôlée). Here you’ll be drinking the fruit of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier vines and while it’s undoubtedly a pricey pursuit, nothing quite compares to getting drunk on champagne. There’s something going on in those bubbles.

From Épernay, stage 5 sees the riders head into the east of the département of Seine-et-Marne, home to Brie, the king of cheeses, which will pair very satisfactorily with champagne, in the unlikely event that you have any left over from the previous day’s quaffage. Failing that, the vin de pays de Seine-et-Marne isn’t bad and you can console yourself in the knowledge that on today’s stage the race enters the valley of the Loiret (a tributary of the mighty Loire) with a stage finish in the medieval town of Montagris. As well as being site of a bizarre medieval trial by dog incident, during the Hundred Years’ War the town was besieged by the Earl of Warwick. The local populace responded by sabotaging the dykes in the area, flooding and drowning many of the besieging English. Why not raise a toast to the Earl of Warwick’s unfortunate men with a light red distinctive of the region, a fruity blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes?

Moving southeast from Montargis, stage 6 is the longest in this year’s Tour and takes us up the eastern bank of the upper Loire, passing just to the south of Chablis and a likely sprint finish in Gueugnon, a town named as way of testing a novice French-speaker’s pronunciation of a particularly unusual dipthong. This is Burgundy, the region of France that has more appellations d’origine contrôlée than any other so you’ll be spoilt for choice. Among whites, Chardonnays are the most common (Chablis, Mâcon and Côte d’Or) and there are also good Sauvignon Blancs with their celebrated bouquet of pisse de chat, not to be mistaken for the samples given by riders at doping control. Look out too for Aligoté, the slightly acidic white wine traditionally used for Kir, an aperitif in which it is mixed with blackcurrant liqueur produced a little to the south, in Dijon. Among the reds, Pinot Noir dominates. Stage 6 is without doubt a wine-lover’s nirvana and you’ll be forgiven for not wanting to get back on the bus.

The next day, nursing your expensive Burgundy hangover, you’ll be heading for the soft furnishings, but the riders in Le Tour will be heading for the hills of the Jura in stage 7. In the first half of the day’s racing they’ll pass along picturesque country roads in the heart of Beaujolais, and you may decide this is the moment for some hair of the dog, a young and fruity Gamay being just the tonic. If you require something more vigorous, then crack open a bottle of Vin Jaune, the Jura region’s most famous and easily distinguishable wine. A late harvest of Savagnin grapes, this thick golden liquor is best consumed with the same attitude that riders in the Tour’s golden years consumed performance-enhancing drugs: what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

Stage 8 is a proper festival of mountains, skirting around the suburbs of Geneva for a mountaintop finish at the high altitude ski resort of Avoriaz. Among skiers, Avoriaz is famous for “The Swiss Wall”, said to one of the most difficult descents in the Alps. The riders in the Tour may also be hitting ‘the wall’ on the slopes of the final 13.6 kilometer climb and if you too find yourself hitting a wall in your Tour des Vins de France, you will be excused for electing to pour yourself a glass of a well-known brand of mineral water, bottled a little north on the shores of Lake Geneva at Evian-les-Bains. Alternatively you can throw caution to the wind by sampling the local Crépy AOC, which is said to taste rather as it sounds.

Continue to part two