Stage 18: Gap to Saint Jean-de-Maurienne

SJB Relics

Wines of the Savoie and St. John the Baptist’s Fingers

It’s day two in the Alps and the peloton races toward the resting place of St. John the Baptist – or at least three of his fingers.  An 11th century cathedral displays said digits, and the population celebrates his life with an annual Bread Festival (see photo.)  Maybe he will be looking out for the riders today; they will need all the help they can get.

The profile for today’s stage looks like the teeth of a gigantic comb, with each tooth representing a mountain.  Riders will face five categorized climbs within the first 85 km of the race (a Cat 2, three Cat 3s, and another Cat 2) capped off with a sprint that is anything but flat.  And it doesn’t get any easier.  At 1,924 meters, the HC climb up the Col du Glandon will surely strike fear into the hearts of the GC contenders (and into the legs of the sprinters).  Mountain stages in the Alps are known for their long, tortuous, soul-crushing paths to the summit.  Lots of time to second-guess whether your training has prepared you for survival!  And then there’s the descent, with plenty of pitfalls for riders succumbing to exhaustion after almost three weeks in the saddle.  But it doesn’t end there – one last climb over the Cat 2 Lacets de Montvernier, then 600 meters to the finish.  Forget about the best man standing – this stage may go to the only man standing at the end of the day!  I’m putting my money on Nairo Quintana here, but it’s anyone’s guess.  Stage 18 is a hell of a day in the mountains, challenging the riders to expend every last drop of energy they have left.

While the riders contend with the Alps, we French wine lovers contend with another challenge – finding a local wine to sample as we cheer on the peloton.  Not that any region in France lacks for delectable wines produced nearby.  Au contraire!  Our problem is rather one of distribution.  The wineries closest to our stage route today are located in an area known as the Savoie.  Never heard of it?  Not surprising given that most of the production is consumed locally, leaving little to none available for export to the States.  A quick on-line search may dig up a few sources offering wines from the Savoie – a small shop specializing in French wines, or perhaps a restaurant whose menu is inspired by the gastronomy of the region.

Savoie WineShould you be so lucky as to track down a bottle or two, you’ll likely be drinking white wine made from a grape known as Jacquère.  It is light, crisp and refreshing, as you’d expect from a wine made in the Alps.  It’s not dissimilar to Muscadet, which I wrote about in the first week of the Tour, as the riders approached Brittany and the Loire Valley.  Roussanne, familiar to aficionados of the Northern Rhône, is also produced here where it is known as Bergeron.  Production is concentrated in a few villages, the most acclaimed of which is Chignin (see photo.)  Red wine is a small percentage of production here, but it does exist, notably in the form of Mondeuse, which is a fresh, peppery wine that does well with some aging.

As an alternative to the somewhat obscure wines of the Savoie, I’ll also recommend exploring the wines of Côtes de Provence.  This region cuts a large swath across the southern reaches of France, all the way to the Mediterranean, and is France’s largest appellation.  While famous for its pink wines and their affinity for the native seafood, reds and whites are also made here.  If you’re in the mood for red, they will likely be made from Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault or Mourvedre (probably a blend known as GSM).  Whites tend toward the light-bodied and are made from a variety of grapes, some of them unique to the area.  Whichever you choose, enjoy it!

Vive le Tour!