Monday, July 18th: Moirans-en-Montagne to Berne
A Day for Spartacus
Tour organizers always like to spread around the glory of cycling’s biggest race. Over the years that has led to the Grand Départ (Stage One) taking place in Yorkshire, England, or in the Netherlands (Utrecht.) And every year the peloton ventures over the border with Spain to play in the craggy peaks of the Pyrénées. Monday afternoon, the Tour will visit Berne, Switzerland, for the first time, setting up what could be an exciting sprint finish in the home town of Fabian Cancellara. Spartacus, as he is known to cycling fans the world over, rides for the Trek – Segafredo Team and will retire at the end of the season. Stage Sixteen is relatively flat, with just a few minor hills, culminating in a straight, mad dash to the line. It’s a course that suits him well, and he will have the home crowd cheering for him, to boot. Who would be silly enough to bet against him? (Fans of Andre Greipel, feel free to weigh in . . . .)
I’d love to talk about Swiss wine as an accompaniment for today’s stage and, indeed, there are some nice ones made. Historically, white wines comprised the bulk of production, particularly those made from the Chasselas grape, which can be quite elegant and reflective of its terroir. But today, Switzerland’s most planted variety is Pinot Noir, accounting for almost 30% of acreage under vine.
The problem with recommending a Swiss wine is that they are practically impossible to find, unless you live in Switzerland! The comparatively small Swiss wine industry produces enough liquid refreshment to satisfy only 40% of domestic consumption; the balance must be imported. Fortunately for thirsty Swiss wine lovers, they are surrounded by a veritable sea of delicious wines from France, Germany, and Italy. Seems like it works out for them.
In the interest of discussing a wine you might be able to locate, let’s set our sights on the Jura region of eastern France. It’s the departure point for our peloton on Monday afternoon, so it should work for us as well.
The Jura has, of late, become quite trendy with sommeliers and wine directors in the States, especially those who promote the organic and natural wine movement. Winemakers in the Jura have a history of making wines according to these traditions, and they are slowly ramping up their export efforts. As with most regions in France, wines of all colors are produced. But it is the diversity of styles of wine produced here that matters most. Still wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as the local red grapes Poulsard and Trousseau, and the white workhorse Savagnin. Sparkling wines, known as Crémants here, come in all colors, too. The quality of the wines is high, with some of the Chardonnnays inspiring comparisons to the white wines of Burgundy, to the west. Local styles known as Macvin, and Vin de Paille are also prevalent. But the main reason people are abuzz about the Jura is a specialty wine called Vin Jaune.
Vin Jaune – The Yellow Wine of France
Vin Jaune bears more resemblance to the Fino and Amontillado Sherry from southern Spain than to anything else produced in France. It is made in a similar style but is not fortified (i.e., no additional alcohol spirits are added to the base wine.) In Jura, the winemakers usually rely on the Savagnin grape, the prominent local white variety. After fermentation, the wine is decanted into casks, leaving a tiny bit of breathing room at the top. This is to encourage the formation of the voile, a native yeast that will grow over the surface of the wine, almost like a blanket. (In Spain this yeast covering is called flor.) The voile survives on sugar and glycerol in the wine, in doing so, leaving its mark on the flavor and texture of the wine. The wine remains in cask for at least five years, and may be bottled only after six years and three months from date of harvest.
A wine that takes so long to make should last a long time, right? The best examples of Vin Jaune can last 50 years or more, for those of you who have lots of patience. So what should you expect once you uncork it? Spicy, herbal notes, as well as the nutty aromas contributed by the voile. And because the wine does experience limited oxidation, you will probably notice some warm, sugary notes similar to an aged Sherry. Vin Jaune is considered an ideal companion to the local cuisine, especially anything made from the famous Comté cheese.
For my TDFBTG recommendation, I’m sending you on a field trip. Find any bottle you can from the Jura region. Extra points if you track down a Vin Jaune and give it a try. These wines are becoming a little easier to find in specialty wine shops and, of course, in French restaurants or wine bars with a natural wine proponent for a sommelier. Enjoy whichever wine you decide upon, and raise your glass to the peloton. Vive le Tour!