Last Stop Before the Alps!
The Tour takes us over some well-traveled roads in Stage 16. This area, known as the Gateway to the Alps, has witnessed history dating back to the Neolithic Period. Through the ages it has been home to groups as diverse as the Romans, the Knights Templar, and Napoleon I, who made Gap his home for an extended period. Our riders probably feel like war-weary soldiers at this point as well.
After suffering through the torture of the Pyrénées, the peloton has survived a couple of surprisingly difficult transition stages the past few days. There is, however, one more to go before the rest day on Tuesday. Stage 16 is a bit tricky because at first glance it seems like a no-brainer for the sprinters seeking one last moment of glory, before the Alps leave them clinging to the back of the peloton. But it’s a rather long stage with two Cat 2 climbs, one of which comes at the very end of the day, and measures a grizzly 1,268 meters!
Anyone hoping to taste victory today will have to have legs fresh enough to haul him over the Col de Manse at the head of the main group in order to set up a successful sprint finish. Tall order! My pick for the stage win today is a man who can do it all – climb, sprint (and ride a wheelie uphill) – Peter Sagan. He’s always in the mix at the finish line, perhaps today is his day. As for the yellow jersey, I think Chris Froome will hold onto it until someone launches a savage attack against him (not likely until the riders are atop the Alps.)
The Northern Rhône
This week, the Tour slips in and out of the Northern Rhône Valley, my personal favorite region of France. Syrah a.k.a. Shiraz (see photo left) 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 (see photo right), 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: The First Vines Planted in Gaul – Côte-Rôtie
At the very top of the Rhône Valley lies an intriguing area known as Côte-Rôtie (see photo left), 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 (see photo right), 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!