The peloton has had a day to recover from the chaos of Stage Twelve and its three-bike pile-up in the last kilometer. (In case you missed it, click here.) Friday put them through an individual time trial, which Tom Dumoulin won handily and, which left the overall GC standings pretty well intact. Saturday’s stage will probably be the last hurrah for the sprinters until Paris, so expect lots of maneuvering by teams like Lotto Soudal, Tinkoff, and Etixx, to place their big guys up front toward the end. The stage itself has a few hills, nothing major. But headwinds could plague the riders at the finish, so there remains the possibility of a real tussle at the end.
We depart from the town of Montélimar today, France’s nougat capital. In case you’re not a candy aficionado, nougat is a chewy confection made from Southern France’s most delightful agricultural products: almonds, lavender honey, pistachios, sugar and eggs. Within the city limits there are 23 manufacturers of nougat; a few plying their trade for hundreds of years. Collectively they churn out more than 3,000 tons of nougat each year! If you’re really curious about the process of nougat-making, you can visit the Palais des Bonbons et Nougat, a museum devoted to the candy. Once inside you’ll see the largest nougat ever made (96 cm high by 112 cm long), weighing in at 1,300 kilos. How much of the local produce went into making it? Four hundred kilos of almonds, 160 kilos of honey, and 2,000 eggs.
As with many regional culinary specialties unique to France, Nougat de Montélimar has applied for designation as an IGP product. That is, Indication Géographique Protégée, a label that certifies a product as from a particular area, where it is crafted according to strict standards. In this case, the requirements specify that the nougat must be made with at least 30% almonds or a blend of at least 28% almonds and 2% pistachios, with sweetener comprising 25% of the blend. Sounds almost like a wine composition, no?
Wines of the Northern Rhône
Speaking of wines, today’s stage slips in and out of the Northern Rhône Valley, one of my favorite regions of France. Syrah (Shiraz) is the king of red grapes here, finding the warm climate and high, granite cliffs much to its liking. The grapes are tended by hand as the steep slopes on which they are planted preclude harvesting by machine. It is back-breaking work that results in some of the most beautiful wines in the world. Perhaps the most famous parcel in the Northern Rhône is Hermitage, whose imposing, blackberry-scented wines were sometimes used to pump up the volume in the wines of Bordeaux (a practice that endured until the mid-19th century.) The area under vine is startlingly small (320 acres), with the entire appellation about the size of a chateau in other regions. With such a small footprint, harvest and production here remain a fraction of the average in most places, which translates into high price tags. Not that these wines aren’t worthy: a well-aged Hermitage has a depth of flavor matched by few other wines. But with prices in the triple digits, they are special treats for most of us.
Luckily there is a solution for those of us who lack either the funds or the patience to buy and age an artisanal Hermitage. Just outside the tightly prescribed area of Hermitage lies a much larger region called Crozes-Hermitage. Wines made here are tailor-made for early drinking, with a blackberry fruit profile that hints at the esteemed wines grown just up the slope, and at a fraction of the price.
Stay tuned for info on some other Northern Rhône wines, one of which is white (and the reason I fell in love with wine!)
Northern Rhône Take Two: Côte-Rôtie
At the very top of the Rhône Valley lies an intriguing area known as Côte-Rôtie, which translates loosely as “roasted slope.” The name is apt, given that the vines grow on terraces etched into slabs of granite that rise almost perpendicularly from the banks of the Rhône River. They face southeast to take advantage of the abundant sunshine, and are thus protected from the cold winds that can descend from the north. As in Hermitage, grapes grown here must be harvested by hand, and it is difficult work.
Syrah reigns supreme in Côte-Rôtie, but rules here allow for a slightly different formula in producing the wine. Whereas in most of the Northern Rhône, red wines must be made from Syrah only, Côte-Rôtie wines may include as much as 20% Viognier, a fragrant white grape, in the blend. It is a distinction that plays out in in the wines of two of the most prominent areas of Côte-Rôtie, the Côte Blonde and the Côte Brune. At the risk of over-simplifying, wines from the Côte Blonde are traditionally softer and more feminine in style. This can be attributed in part to the soil composition, which tends toward granite and sand here. Grapes from the Côte Brune grow in heavier soil that contains clay and iron, lending additional intensity and structure to these wines.
Another factor is the addition of Viognier to the wines of the Côte Blonde, which helps round out the profile of the Syrah, which can be intense, tannic, and peppery. Wines made in the Côte Brune generally do not include Viognier in the blend, leaving them as beautiful symbols of Syrah’s raw power.
Modern winemakers the world over are experimenting with the Syrah-Viognier combination, with great results. In Australia, d’Arenberg Winery in McLaren Vale has created a signature Côte-Rôtie-style blend called Laughing Magpie. Put it up against a wine from one of the Côtes and see what you think. Enjoy!
Stage Fourteen: Local Attractions
The peloton crosses the finish line in Villars-les-Dombes, home of the extraordinary Parc des Oiseaux. A literal translation of its title does no justice to the reality: Bird Park. This bird sanctuary hosts one of the richest and most beautiful collections of birds presented anywhere in Europe, with more than 3,000 birds. There are specimens from each of the continents, representing 18 of the 25 known avian orders. Most of the birds living in the sanctuary were born here, including members of forty endangered species. The Parc des Oiseaux takes seriously its role in educating the public on the necessity of protecting and preserving those species. Part of this educational outreach was the development of a film featuring the birds and their habitat. In 2008, the French Tourism Ministry awarded the Parc the Etoiles du Tourisme prize for its efforts.
TDFBTG Recommendation for Stage Fourteen
With so many lovely wines from the Northern Rhone available, it shouldn’t be hard to find one that floats your boat. Blackberry-powered Syrah and some grilled steaks, or an aromatic white blend and a salad of greens and grilled peaches – take your pick. I think I’ll take this opportunity to uncork a beautiful Condrieu, and enjoy the seductive floral temptation of Viognier. It’s my perfect vision of summer in a glass!
Cheers! And Vive le Tour!