A few years ago, it was a stage like this one that inspired me to create Tour de France by the Glass, a wine lover’s companion to the three-week race. Day after day, the peloton pedaled through some of the world’s most famous vineyards, and I thought, I can’t be the only person interested in both cycling and wine. Not to mention the fascinating history, culture, and cuisine unique to each village along the way. Someone ought to write about that! So I did. And here I am, three years later, still relishing every minute of the best sporting event in the world.
Tour organizers change the route each year and, to be honest, that means some years lend themselves to wine exploration better than others do. The layout of the 2017 Tour is a wine-lover’s dream! Already we’ve skirted around the vineyards of Alsace and plowed right through the esteemed acreage of Champagne – and it’s only the first week.
The Côte d’Or – Burgundy’s Hallowed Ground
Friday’s stage is a long, southerly swoop through the Côte d’Or, birthplace of some of the most coveted wines on earth. Running about 30 miles north to south, the Côte produces elegant wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Loosely translated as Golden Slope, the name Côte d’Or could also refer to the eastward-facing escarpment on which most of the vineyards lie, and might be an abbreviated form of Côte d’Orient (east, in French.)
Why is this important? In northerly climates like Burgundy, grapes may struggle to ripen in cool years. Therefore, exactly where the vines are planted makes a great deal of difference. For example, vineyards set mid-slope (800-1,000 feet in elevation) are less prone to frost. If those slopes face east/southeast, the grapes can take advantage of the first sun of the day, which also warms the soil around them, affording an extra level of protection. An eastern aspect also shelters the vines from strong westerly winds, which often bring rain, a problem especially as harvest time approaches.
Another issue threatening Burgundy growers is vintage variation. From one year to the next, vignerons struggle against Mother Nature: perhaps it’s a spring frost at bud burst, severely limiting the potential crop, or hail in mid-summer devastating the ripening fruit. In this region there’s always something to worry about. Small wonder that, when the stars align and growers are blessed with a favorable vintage, Burgundy lovers snatch up as many bottles as they can.
The Côte de Nuits – Pinot Noir Heaven
The Côte d’Or can be divided into two sub-regions: the Côte de Nuits in the north, which is famous for its red wines from Pinot Noir; and the Côte de Beaune further south, which also produces white wines from Chardonnay. Stage 7 takes us right through the Côte de Nuits, passing by the bucolic villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vougeot, and finishing in Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Curious about how these wines compare to each other? Check out this video from the BIVB in which Véronique Drouhin walks us through the Côte de Nuits:
With about 1,000 acres under vine, Gevrey-Chambertin is the largest wine-producing region of the Côte d’Or. A mere 87 acres are devoted to Grand Cru vineyards, the top-quality echelon of Burgundy. Gevrey-Chambertin boasts nine Grand Crus and a plethora of Premier Cru wines (the next rung on the Burgundy appellation scale) some of which rival the Grand Crus in quality. These wines are noted for their dense crimson color, firm structure, and ability to age well. The Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) the trade group representing local wine producers) describes Gevrey-Chambertin wines as “having both body and spirit.” They recommend pairing these smoothly tannic wines with roasted game or braised lamb.
Traveling south, the next stop for the peloton is Morey-Saint-Denis, home to five Grand Cru terroirs. Burgundy aficionados commonly describe the wines of this village as a perfect combination of finesse and power; they are wines of balance and can age very well. The wines of Morey-Saint-Denis have aromas of black cherry, violet, and even a touch of licorice. Over time they evolve to deeper, earthier notes of game, truffles, and forest floor. Again, the best descriptor of these wines comes from the BIVB: a wine of balance between fruit and body, Morey-Saint-Denis “sings tenor in the Burgundy choir.”
Home to Clos de Vougeot, the largest Grand Cru in the Côte d’Or, Vougeot turns out densely colored wines redolent of cherry and currant that are notable for their solid structure and intensity. Their lovely aromas make them a great match with dishes of similar intensity, such as Peking Duck, or perhaps a plate of gooey Reblochon cheese. Clos de Vougeot itself was founded by the Cistercians who owned the entire parcel of vineyards. That gave them the option of selecting among wines made from multiple parcels in crafting the highest-quality blend each year. These days, with more than 80 different owners claiming a piece of the Grand Cru, blending across sites is impossible.
Vougeot is considered by many fans to be “the complete Pinot Noir.” Robust and firmly structured in youth, it can develop for ten years or more, yielding a wine with a beautiful fruit profile underpinned by earth and truffles.
Stage 7 ends in Nuits-Saint-Georges, home to 27 Premier Crus but no Grand Crus. The village serves as a center for many négociants, merchants who buy grapes or wine from local winemakers and bottle it for sale under their own labels. The reality is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea. One of France’s best-known négociants is Louis Jadot, active in both Burgundy and Beaujolais.
The wines themselves tend to be muscular and chewy, particularly when young and are what the BIVB calls “sturdy,” needing time to evolve. Like their siblings throughout the Côte de Nuits, Pinot Noir wines from Nuits-Saint-George are deep red and highly aromatic of cherries, violets, and herbs, acquiring notes of leather, game, and earth as they age. I’m thinking they would be a stunning companion to seared duck breast.
For more details on the special soils of the Côte de Nuits, here is another video from the BIVB explaining why this strip of land gives birth to such exceptional wines:
Tour de France by the Glass Recommendation
Wines from the four villages listed above are readily available, however, they can be quite pricey. If you’ve got a nice relationship with your local wine shop, ask them for help. Grand Cru wines will be the most expensive, with Premier Cru wines a bit less and, in some cases, much better value. There will be more choice at the Village level (wines labeled simply with the name of the village, without the name of a specific vineyard appended to it.) Your local wine shop may have some really great options at a reasonable price. Seek and ye shall find!
Saturday the peloton heads toward the Jura mountains, bringing a whole slew of new wines for us to talk about. Until then, enjoy Burgundy. And Vive le Tour!