Stage 1: Le Grand Départ – Individual Time Trial (Utrecht, Netherlands)

Castle Zuylen Utrecht

Are you wondering why the Tour de France 2015 begins in the Netherlands?  It’s not unusual for the Grand Départ to take place outside of France: in fact, it’s happened 19 times since 1954.  Last year Yorkshire, England hosted the kick-off, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge greeting the riders at the finish line.  The Grand Départ, always hosted by a local VIP, will this year be honored by the presence of his royal highness, King Willem-Alexander.

Stage Details:

Distance – 13.7 km
Stage Type – Individual Time Trial – each rider races alone, against the clock.
Number of Riders – 198
Number of Teams – 22
My Pick to Win the Stage – Tony Martin from Great Britain.  He’s a three-time world time-trial champion.  Works for me!
My Pick to Take the Yellow Jersey – Whoever wins the stage will earn the right to wear the yellow jersey, at least for one day.  Tony Martin.

How to Watch It – Live broadcast beginning at 7:00 am EDT on NBCSN.  Rebroadcast at 3:00 pm EDT on NBC, with additional content (interviews, competitive analysis and more).  I usually end up watching both.  The live broadcast covers the entire stage, with brilliant commentary by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, both of whom know the sport inside-out and can give great color commentary on the regions and their history.  The prime-time broadcast includes the race highlights, and adds features like interviews with the riders and their managers and demonstrations of the latest racing technology.  It’s all good!

Utrecht Dom Tower at Night
Dom Tower; Utrecht

Description of Town/Region – Utrecht is a modern Dutch city with a medieval town center dating back 2000 years.  It’s a university town located 40 km southeast of Amsterdam, which attracts tourists and adventure-seekers who enjoy exploring its canals, gothic Dom Tower, and automobile-free city center.

Wine in the Netherlands

While the Dutch have been producing wine since Roman times, it was their domination of the commercial shipping lanes centuries ago that magnified their influence on the world’s wine and spirits trade.  They became experts at stabilizing wine for long maritime voyages, and were instrumental in the birth of the South African wine industry.  Lest you think that their interest in wine was limited to the profits gleaned from its transport, up until the end of the 20th century, the Dutch imported more sherry than any other country in the world.  (Great Britain now holds that title, for those of you who are wondering.)

Today, more than 100 producers in the Netherlands craft wine:  in the warmer southerly regions of the country, from well-known vitis vinifera varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais.)  In the cooler, northeast regions, you’ll find wines made from lesser-known grapes like Regent, Rondo, and Johanniter, which fare better in the harsher climate.  Granted, Dutch wines may be impossible to find in your local wine shop.  But you can explore similar wines from nearby regions in Germany and France, where the same grapes hold sway.

So for today’s sip-along suggestion, I recommend a nice, crisp Riesling or Pinot Gris from the Alsace region in northeastern France, or from Germany.  Or you could pay tribute to the Dutch and their love of sherry by cracking open a bone-dry Fino Sherry or a Manzanilla from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain.  Most wine merchants and big-box stores offer a decent selection of these wines and at a range of prices, so finding one you like should be easy.  I’ve included a few examples of wines that should be widely available, although prices will vary by region.  But the best way to discover new wines is to patronize a local wine shop devoted to putting interesting and delicious wines on the shelf.  Most of the proprietors are passionate about wine, love to talk about it, and will guide you expertly in all of your wine adventures.

Sherry:  I love cold, crisp and dry Manzanilla on a very warm day, and we get quite a few of them here in South Florida!  This particular type of sherry comes from a town near Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast of Spain.  You can practically taste the beach in each sip.  Drink it as the Spanish do – with a plate of almonds and olives alongside.  Wines to try:

Osborne Manzanilla Sherry – ($11.99)
La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry – ($15.99)

Alsace, France:  This area, across the Rhine River from Germany, produces wonderful, dry white wines.  If you’ve been curious about trying Riesling but are worried you’ll end up with a sweet wine, grab a bottle from Alsace.  Almost all of them are produced in a very dry style that will suit you.  And the Pinot Gris from this area will challenge everything you think you know about Pinot Grigio (yes, it’s the same grape!).  It will be a little more full-bodied, with somewhat spicier notes.  Wines to try:

Albrecht Pinot Gris Tradition – ($19.99)
Trimbach Riesling – ($18.99)

Germany:  Riesling is probably best-known as the signature grape of Germany, where it can be made in a variety of styles, from very dry to very, very sweet.  It’s worth getting to know all of these wines and discovering how they work with savory dishes and desserts.  For today’s recommendation I’m sticking with one of the drier styles, called Kabinett.  German wine labels can be frightfully confusing but here are a couple of tips that might be helpful as you navigate the shelves.  If you’re searching for a drier style, look for labels with the word “Kabinett”.  They are usually, but not always, on the dry side.  Another thing to look for is the alcohol content.  All wines sold in the USA must have this number (a percentage) printed on the label.  At the risk of overgeneralizing, the lower the percentage, the sweeter the wine is likely to be.  For example, wines between 7% and 11% alcohol will probably taste sweeter than those that have 12% or more.  That said, even sweeter Rieslings have a balance of acidity that make them very refreshing and good partners with a wide range of foods.  Wines to try:

Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Kabinett – ($23)

Enjoy the Grand Départ and Vive Le Tour!