Here’s a quick recap of what happened on Wednesday’s stage:
It was nice to see Caleb Ewan finally clinch a sprint win – goodness knows he’s been edged out several times during this year’s Tour. There’s been so much pressure on little Caleb that he burst into tears afterward; my guess is we’d all do the same. A real feel-good moment, for sure.
What to Expect on Thursday’s Stage
No more long, flat roads meandering through beautiful countryside: we’re in the Pyrénées, baby! That means a long stage on Thursday (209 kms) with two category one (really difficult) climbs toward the end.
Expect impossibly steep slopes with breath-taking views; uneven, narrow roads with patches of loose gravel and the occasional pothole; and uncomfortably warm temperatures. While a small group of riders will inevitably break away from the peloton early in the day, they will just as inevitably be caught before the first big climb.
Our stage winner will be one of the race’s premier climbers – the slightly built, tenacious guys who seem to be dancing on the pedals as they ascend a mountain peak. Look for Nairo Quintana from Movistar, or current yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe to lead the (slow-moving) charge up the Hourquette d’Ancizan (over 5,000 feet high.)
Then stay tuned for a high-flying, death-defying descent to the finish; my money is on Alaphilippe to beat everyone to the line. He descends like a mad man, taking risks no other rider would dare to take. It will be very exciting to watch!
Tour de France by the Glass Recommendation
Did you know that the IGP Côtes de Gascogne region shares its boundaries with Armagnac?
About the IGP Côtes de Gascogne
Encompassing the vineyards of Armagnac (home to some of France’s most celebrated brandy) this large appellation overlaps the regions of Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, and a few others. As with most IGP designations, rules are a bit more relaxed here than in the more exclusive Appellations d’Origines Contrôlées, allowing for plenty of experimentation with grape varieties, blends, and winemaking techniques.
Gascony, as it is called in English, was part of the much larger Aquitaine region, which has an interesting history. King Louis VII married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most powerful European women of the era. Eleanor came to the marriage with a pretty hefty dowry – the Duchy of Aquitaine – which significantly extended Louis’s holdings in France. Alas, no happy ending for them; their marriage was annulled in 1152 when no male heir was produced. The Duchy reverted to Eleanor after the split.
Soon thereafter, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou: and thanks to his new wife, now also Duke of Aquitaine. By the time Henry ascended to the British throne in 1154, his empire included a vast territory extending from Scotland in the north, to the Pyrénées Mountains at the French-Spanish border. The area of Aquitaine remained under British rule for nearly 300 years.
The Wines of IGP Côtes de Gascogne
Historically, brandy producers relied on the grape Folle Blanche as the main component of their base wines. After phylloxera ravaged vineyards throughout France, Folle Blanche was replaced by Ugni Blanc, which had the added benefit of being resistant to powdery mildew and grey rot. Late to bud and ripen, it was less susceptible to spring frosts. Its propensity toward high yields made it attractive to commercial growers who also valued its high acidity levels. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Ugni Blanc was made into a still wine. For the same reasons it made great sense to the brandy distillers, Ugni Blanc was also a good candidate for white table wines. A new way of thinking about white grapes in South West France had begun.
Many other grapes contribute to the Côtes de Gascogne portfolio, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: Colombard. A cross between Chenin Blanc and Gouais Blanc, Colombard makes a reliable blending partner with Ugni Blanc. When its vigorous growth is curbed and careful winemaking ensues, Colombard can give rise to delicate wines with a distinct floral component. Prone to oxidation, vigilant winemakers guard against this by implementing strict temperature controls and using stainless steel vats for fermentation. An interesting aside: many of these techniques were first employed by growers in California, who had taken a shine to Colombard. It was their expertise with oxidation prevention that brought forth this new personality to the variety. So in essence, the new order taught the old guard how to coax the best qualities from one of its native grapes.
The old guard were apt pupils, quickly adapting these techniques to their own purposes. This change of thinking was instrumental in the drive to create the Côtes de Gascogne IGP back in 2009. Now it is one of the most productive IGPs in France, with a healthy demand for its products far beyond the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge: approximately 75% of production is exported.
Two Wines to Look For
Maison Georges Vigouroux Pigmentum (11.5% abv; $10 retail)
A blend of Ugni Blanc (60%) and Colombard (40%) this wine is the product of a fourth-generation winemaker who combines traditional methods with modern winemaking techniques to elicit the best quality wine from his grapes. He begins with old vines: 40 years old, for the Ugni Blanc; 25 years old for the Colombard. The wines are separately fermented and receive different treatments before being blended. The Colombard undergoes pre-fermentation maceration on its skins, to coax as many aromatic properties out of the grapes as possible. The Ugni Blanc rests on its lees for two to six months, with periodic stirring to increase complexity and richness in the finished wine. That’s a lot of care and attention lavished on a wine that retails for about $10. And it shows!
Domaine du Touja Côtes de Gascogne (12% abv; $9 retail)
Colombard (80%) and Chardonnay (20%)
Another family endeavor, Domaine du Touja has been making wine for three generations, in the village of Cravenceres in Gers. They farm 45 hectares of vines in the picturesque hills of the Midi-Pyrénées, and suggest serving a glass of their crisp, dry white wine with charcuterie, mild cheese, or just by itself. I did that very thing a few nights ago, putting together a plate of Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh sliced figs, and mild salami. Outstanding combination!
Color: Pale lemon.
Nose: Lemon meringue pie.
Palate: Lemons, lemons, lemons! Some citrus pith, pineapple and lime on the finish. This wine had a rounder, smoother mouthfeel than I was expecting, balanced by bright acidity. I really enjoyed it!
Note: Current vintages of both wines are carried by Total Wine, so it should be easy to track down a bottle or two.
Looking Ahead to Friday’s Stage
Stage 13 is the individual time trial, where each rider does a solo run, pitting himself against the clock. It’s not that exciting to watch but has huge implications for the overall contenders: a poor performance could jeopardize someone’s chance for a podium position in Paris – or perhaps even cost them a top-ten finish.
I’ll be back tomorrow with suggestions on what to sip while you watch.