While the importance of le Tour is undeniable, its place in French culture and identity pales in comparison to le vin. French wine dates back to the 6th century BC and the proliferation and refinement of the wines are owed largely to the growth and power of both the Roman empire (and subsequently the Catholic church in France) and the obvious quality of the wines made from the vineyards that were planted. The identity and quality of the wine has survived centuries, empires, world wars, and a nasty case of lice (phylloxera).
Over that time, wine’s reputation, like that of the Tour de France, has grown, and in essence France has become synonymous with fine wine. France has done more than lead the way, it simply is the standard by which all wine is measured. Cabernet Sauvignon and merlot are not simply grape varieties, they are Bordeaux varieties as much as pinot noir made in Oregon may be said to be Burgundian in character. It is nearly impossible to talk about wine without reference or comparison to the wines of France.
Like the towns along the route of le tour the wines of France are a tapestry of regional cultures, influenced by cuisine, people and histories that are all both French and unique unto themselves. This notion of unique goes beyond referring to oneself as a Breton or Parisien. The underlying element that makes French wine so great is the singular nature of the place each wine comes from, resulting in a wine that could only be made by that particular place in that particular time or vintage. This concept is called terroir.
Terroir is a concept that has come to be understood as a “sense of place.” What goes into that equation is extensive: the soil types or geology, the slope of the vineyard or its topography and certainly the particular climate are all wrapped up in the concept of terroir in wine. Place is so important to French wine that the AOC system, or appellation d’origine contrôlée, was put in place in 1935 to protect those unique places and the wines that come from them.
The importance of terroir in France is further outlined by the lack of another term: winemaker. There is no French word for winemaker; the closest term, vigneron, connotes the grower of wine grapes. Such is the importance of the place, and the vineyard in French wine. The term cru or “growth” connotes a reputation of a particular vineyard within a region. These designations were developed in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. Vineyards were designated based on their reputation for excellence, further placing place at the forefront of what it takes make the best wine. The most sought after wines in France come from vineyards or chateaux designated Premier cru in Bourdeaux and Grand Cru in Burgundy.
The 2019 edition of the Tour de France cuts a route through some of France’s less renowned wine growing regions, while also highlighting some classics. Burgundy and its beautiful pinot noir and chardonnays and Champagne appear on the tour’s route but Bordeaux doesn’t make the map this go round. Though a few others are certainly worth highlighting, we bring to you a wine guide to the 2019 Tour de France.
Stages 3 & 4:
Stage three yesterday ended in Epernay and today’s stage four rolled out of nearby Reims and these two towns represent the capitals of France’s most sought after sparkling wines. There is only one place in the world where they make Champagne, and that’s in Champagne. Pop a bottle of classic bubbles from the Champagne house of Alfred Gratien founded way back in 1864.
Champagne Alfred Gratien Brut is an example of classically done Champagne. The blend of vintages includes several of the house’s reserve wines. Aromas are pure Champagne, buttered brioche, honey and apricot. The palate is sophisticated, fresh baked bread, nutmeg and honey, the fine bubbles make for a perfect celebration of this year’s grandest of Grand Tours. $50
The first serious climbing will come in Alsace, this germanic region of French wine known for things like riesling and gewürztraminer as much as for the region’s beautiful half timber architecture, and picturesque riverside villages like Colmar, where the peloton will end it’s day. A stone’s throw from the German border the wines of Alsace certainly take their influence from their eastern neighbors. Between category two climbs the peloton will pass through Ribeauvillé, the epicenter of the vineyards of Trimbach, a name that has become synonymous with Alsace, and a family that has made wine in the regions for three hundred years.
2016 Trimbach “Classic” Riesling is a 100% riesling with a purely French pedigree. This is a wine with a delicate and lively character, that makes the case for riesling being perhaps the best food wine in all the world. Aromas are floral and fruity, with a palate that is dominated by lemon zest, stone fruit and great gripping acidity. $20 (Trimbach does make some rieslings that go for a couple benjamins, if you’re so inclined.)
As the peloton rolls into Chalon-sur-Saône the stages early lumpy profile flattens out for the last eighty or so kilometers making this one a sprinter’s prize. As prize wines go, this part of France is tough to top as the Côte Chalonnaise and the southern tip of the Côte de Beaune, Burgundy’s southern pinot noir growing appellations converge not far from the finish line in Chalon-sur-Saône. At the borders of these two wine demarcation zones sits the the appellation called Maranges. Where the Clos de la Fussière vineyard sits on a single hectare, taking in the southern sun. The 2016 Xavier Monnot Maranges Clos de la Fussière is a Premier (1er) Cru bottling of this monopole property, of one hundred percent pinot noir. The wine is bright and fruity but it offers an abundance of structure, with tannin and richness that will serve it well from a number of years of aging. $55
Beginning in the southern reaches of the greater Burgundy region before heading to a serious climbing day, Stage 8 will begin in the town of Mâcon in the heart of the Mâconnais where chardonnay is king before passing through hilly Beaujolais and the growing region of Morgon, and then into the Rhône-Alpes, where the climbing will get serious.
The Vins Georges Duboeuf are synonymous with this part of France. The Duboeufs are making an array of wines from Beaujolais in particular that are both larger and ultra small production bottlings. While many new to wine associate this part of France with Beaujolais Nouveau a simple very young wine, Duboeuf and many others in the region hope to introduce you to the Crus of Beaujolais that are sophisticated and complex expressions of the gamay grape.
2015 Mâcon-Villages Sélection Georges Duboeuf is a blend of chardonnay vineyards from the regional village level AOC, that consistently offer fantastic white Burgundy elegance (read chardonnay) and delicacy at an amazing price. Aromatics of flower and cut stone fruits and a palate that is light and lively offering citrus, honey and chalk. $18
2015 Morgon Sélection Georges Duboeuf is a toe dip into one of the ten Beaujolais crus. Morgon is perhaps the most typical of the region, it offers up a lot of energy and concentrated bright fruity gamay noir. Aromas of fresh berries and spice, and a palate that offers structure with ample red and blue fruits and a ton of zippy energy at the end. $18
After a transfer from Tourmalet Barèges the peloton heads out of Limoux into the Pyrenees yet again. This treasure of southwestern France includes the home of some of its most important cuisine, think Cassoulet, and some real historical treasures like the town of Carcassonne. It’s also a fantastic wine region known as the Languedoc-Roussillon. Sparkling wine was actually discovered in Limoux but the region is best known for its rustic, powerful red wines made from many of the grapes made famous in the Rhône Valley. Think, syrah, grenache and mourvedre among others.
2016 Bila Haut L’esquerda This big bold red wine epitomizes the region of the Languedoc-Roussillon packed with loads of garrigue, pepper and black fruit. The aromas are intense, with dried figs and violets dominating. The palate is lush and mouth filling. Legendary Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier, has brought his winemaking skills to the region and with the more relaxed regulations is crafting wildly delicious wines at bargain prices. $25
After a rest day and a loop for the sprinters in Nîmes the peloton heads for the mountains but first passes through the hills of the legendary Côtes du Rhône wine region, as well as the city of Orange, once the capital of northern Provence before heading onto Gap and beginning a series of high mountain stages. The peloton will be cruising through the hills of the Rhône appellation, and while we’re away from the Mediterranean coast, the very mention of Provence means we should pull out some pink wine.
2018 Jean-Luc Colombo Cape Bleue Rosé
Domaine Colombo’s reputation is based upon the wines that they make from the Northern Rhône appellation of Cornas, but this fantastic pink wine is made in the hills above the bay of Marseille. A blend of syrah and mourvedre this rosé is classically provencal, dry as a bone but with body and structure to carry it alongside something substantial off the grill. Ten hours of skin contact have left this wine with a beautiful hue, and the aromatics and palate are watermelon, rhubarb and cut berries. A whole lot of wine for about $12.