January 1903 it was announced. There would be a cycling race around France. It would be epic. It would be one to follow. At least.. that’s was the flailing newspaper L’Auto hoped. In light of the Dreyfus Affair coverage, its rivaling paper Le Velo was selling near 80,000 copies a day. L’Auto was at its wits end. This race just might be the thing. Though few actually thought it would make a difference. But just as this race has come to represent the hopes and dreams for so many around the world, so too was it the hope for this paper.
The original plan was for a nearly 2-month tour with ample breaks between. The register fee and unrealistic time off work (or, if a pro, the prospect of not getting paid for the effort at all) saw only 15 registrants. A shortening to 19 days, small daily stipend and rather attractive pot of gold at the end of the trail for the yellow jersey saw a considerable increase in applicants to about 80–some pro, some hobbyists. And so, the race began on July 1, 1903.
100 years. A centennial of incredible change and evolution has made this race one of the most revered, inspirational, angering and emotional in the sports industry. If we place the Super Bowl, the Indy 500 and NCAA tournament as some of the most watched in this country, the Tour de France no doubt is one of the most watched in the world. For 100 years, excepting only the years of the world wars, this race has carried on, one pedal in front of the next. It has seen great rises of glory and irreversible moments of regret. Still, despite those moments of darkness, it manages to capture to imaginations and enthusiasm of so many around the world.
This year’s centennial celebration will include a thorough ride around the country, taking you through the Mediterranean coast up north to the historically heavy Normandy, past the castles of the Loire and the high alpine stretches of Savoie. I urge you all to grab a couple bottles this tour and share them with some friends while you watch the coverage of these breathtaking parcels of a place I love: France.
1. Corsica (June 29-July 1)
Off the coast of Nice (closer, in fact to Italy), this remote island has shifted from making wine for fun and local sustenance to a more global, export-worthy focus. Eric & Antoine Poli are brothers that very much want to be apart of this positive change. They have been running Domaine di Piana off a 75-acre stretch along the east coast for some time now. But in 2005, they came across a coveted piece of place in the northern part of Patrimonio–arguably the best region on the island. They took what they could–an ancient, old vine plot of 3 hectares (slightly more than 7 acres). Here with their Clos Alivu label, from 50+ year old Niellucio vines (known to be Sangiovese), they make this elegant, soft spoken rose. It is produced in the most respected fashion–directly pressed from the grapes themselves. Not a biproduct secondary to the reds as so many pink wines are destined to be. Protected as they are from the maritime influence of the Golfe de Saint Laurent, the vines do not need much in the way of chemicals to keep them healthy. Therefore, they run a very natural, organic practice on this site.
Some Favorites: Clos Alivu rose of Niellucio or Vermentino ($21)
2. Provence (July 4)
Provence. More than a place, it is a feeling. It is a sense of freedom, the slow passage of time, and pastoral escapism. In my own backyard, in Denver, CO, I can approximate this magical region by simply making a modest spread of chilled seafood, cheese and olives cloaked in Herbs de Provence. On the table, a chilled bottle of pale rose beading up with moisture on its surface. Provence is possibly the most peaceful spot–rural and meditative… buzzing with the sounds of insects and birds.
This year, be sure to take an evening for yourself and recreate this mystical region. Be there in spirit if not in the flesh.
Some favorites: AIX rose ($15), Domaine Triennes (any of them! $17-20), Bunan Mas de la Rouviere Bandol ($40), Secret de Campagne ($11)
3. Languedoc (July 5)
The largest wine producing region in the world, comprised mostly of cooperatives, the Languedoc offers just about every kind of wine for every palate at often very affordable prices. Thankfully the ‘Vin de Pays’ system of regulations have made this southern Mediterranean region really up their standards of quality, making it now one of the most sought after places if you are desiring the rare combo of value and character in a bottle. The Mediterranean tempers what would otherwise be a very hot, unmanageable climate—it is, in fact the hottest and most arid parcel in all of France! Picking up just about where Gascogne left off, the Languedoc is pretty large, stretching the length of the coast to Provence and the Rhone. They have a nice long growing season and benefit from large scale production.
Some favorites: Mas de Gassac Rouge ($35) or Rose ($12), Chateau d’Oupia Minervois ($10-12). Chateau Helene Corbieres ($14-30), Domaine Magellan ($12-17), Chateau Saint Baulery Saint Chinian ($15)
4. Pyrenees (July 7)
Each year, these dedicated cyclists are flung into the slow climbs of the Pyrenees, resting in the base town of Pau. While we spectators munch on the exquisite cheeses to be found on wheel carts of local farmers, hugging the sides of the road, we watch the determination as these riders put one pedal in front of the next. It can be wet, damp, and chilly. Gruelling is another word for it…
But when you find peaks, you find pretty wines. I say pretty because these are never overbearing. In your face. Obnoxious.. They are elegant, refined and soft-spoken. For these wines it is not the volume of your words, rather the impact of the words themselves that matter. Higher in the sky, vines tend to experience cooler temperatures, making for higher acid and less dense, sun-ripened fruit. Though there are exceptions with regions like Madiran, known for its exceptionally tannic, austere (in youth) Tannat grapes, so many other little villages simply make a light, tasty local wine with which to wash down their heavenly bits of fromage.
Some Favorites: Chateau Laffite-Teston Madiran & Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh ($25-30), Domaine Bru-Bache Jurancon Sec ($20) , Lapeyre Jurancon Sec ($25)
5. Normandy (July 9-11)
Here in the north, you won’t be tasting much wine. In lieu of the grape, here we celebrate the apple–or pomme, as they might say in France. While the race finds itself over a week invested in this epic trip around the country, we can take a moment to examine the finer details between the lines. Normandy is famous for cider, most certainly–a lightly fermented, refreshing beverage much like ale but made of apples. One of my absolute favorites from the esteemed producer Dupont. The Dupont family is still perhaps most famous, though, for Calvados, without a doubt Normandy’s most sought-after beverage. This spirit is distilled from a light alcoholic apple wash–basically distilled apple cider and sometimes pear. Think Brandy with an apple-y edge.
Some Favorites: Domaine Dupont ciders * calvados (everything is good by these folks!). Domaine du Manoir Calvados, Chateau du Breuil Calvados 12 yr
6. Loire (July 11-12)
Such a range of character of style comes from this ancient stretch of vineyards along the Loire River, extending from the gravelly Muscadet region on the Atlantic Ocean well inland about 300 miles to the famed limestone beds of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Here you can sip on high acid Melon de Bourgone with your mussels one moment then a sweeter Chenin Blanc from Vouvray with your foie gras the next. Rustic Cabernet Francs are almost haunting from the regions of Chinon and Bourgeil.
Some Favorites: Olga Raffault Chinon ‘Les Picasses’ ($25), Vigneau Chevreau Vouvray ($24), Clos les Montys Muscadet ($19), Lucien Crochet Sancerre ($35)
7. Saint Pourcain (July 13)
Nearly touching the vines of the Loire, Saint Pourcain (pronounced poor-s-on) is an AOC in its own right, established as such in 2009. This young region, however, has a long history of grape growing. About 1400 hectares are under vine–white, red and rose is the fruit of the labor here. Beaujolais’s Gamay grape is dominant here (and must make up 40% of the blend), though Pinot Noir is fast becoming the new favorite. And while Tressalier might be the local white grape that was native to these parts, it is now determined that Chardonnay is the one that really thrives here and so it is that they must largely make up the blend if not all the white in the bottle. These wines offer tremendous value and character.
Some Favorites: Chateau Courtinat
8. Beaujolais (July 14)
One of the more recent fads in hipster drink culture, haven’t you heard?! Yes, ask just about any fadora-wearing wine-o in Williamsburg what’s in their glass, chances are it is likely one of these easygoing, unpretentious reds (if it’s not Fino Sherry). It hasn’t always had the best reputation, though. Many of you may recall buying Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving. Simple and unremarkable, over the years, this tradition of drinking the harvest first juice gave Beaujolais the image of holiday plonk. But we forget the history… a history that is fascinating. Hard working farmers coming into the taverns on the final days of autumn, just around late November, and drinking from barrels of hardly fermented wine that was crushed not even 2 months prior. So well-earned was this wine from the grapes their blistered hands picked, who cared if it wasn’t aged and bottled yet. From there, people around the world wanted in on the celebration of harvest, and it has become a much anticipated day: the third Thursday in November at 12:01a. That’s what this wine is about: honesty, hard work, celebration and energetic possibility. A preview, if you will. People come to think of it as mediocre wine—hardly a piece of prestigious Burgundy. Thankfully, those days are becoming part of the past, and Beaujolais is gaining some ground.
Some Favorites: Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly ($25), Dominique Piron Beaujolais-Villages ($20), Chateau du Basty Regnie ($16)
9. Ventoux (July 15)
The Mont Ventoux. It rises form the earth as though it were alone in this world–disconnected from any other mountain range. Although apart of the Alps, one wouldn’t guess it by looking at its solitary place, an icon of Provence and the Southern Rhone Valley in general. As is the rest of this area, the Mont Ventoux is greatly characterized by its strong, unforgiving winds. In fact, Ventoux actually means windy in French–much of it from the relentless Mistral with speeds of sometimes over 200 miles per hour. It is uninhabited. Desolate. A barren stretch of stripped limestone. The Mont Ventoux is a much-loved climb–variations that are around 20-25k from the base. It is considered the hardest of all climbs for the cyclists and therefore finds itself on the itinerary at least every few years.
Some Favorites: Chateau Pesquie Cuvee des Terrasses ($35), Chateau Valcombe Rose & Rouge ($16-20), Cave la Romaine ($10)
10. Savoie (July 16-20)
As if to suffer these poor cyclists anymore near the end, they will transition from one of the most difficult climbs in Ventoux to some of the, well, most difficult climbs in the Alpine region of Savoie. Here, they will do something that I have personally never seen before: the glorious, revered and desperately trying Alpe d’Huez… twice. Although this deceptively short climb is only just over 8 miles long, I recall trailing behind these cyclists a couple years ago for a good hour or two. It is very slow and steady. Crowds of people run alongside, wearing thongs, drinking beer and generally being jackasses. It is a relief to know that is not purely an American spectator pasttime. Winding up this narrow road, you can feel the intensity, the tenacious mentality, and the pure anguish in these riders. To imagine twice is nothing short of remarkable.
Some Favorites: Domaine Jean Vullien (several, $11-16), Frédéric Giachino Vin de Savoie Abymes Tradition ($16)
And so, while we wipe of the sweat of our own brow just thinking of their hard work, why not cool down with some of the magnificent whites this region is renowned for!
And if you live in the Denver area, stop by Little’s Wine & Spirits (2390 South Downing Street, 303.744.3457) and sip through the race for extra savings! You receive 10% of a bottle from each region. If you finish by the end of the actual Tour, you get 50% off any one bottle of your choice from one featured region!