With the Tour de France over, we look back at one of its most dramatic and memorable stages with raised glasses and a tour of our own through Stage 12. Of course, what tour of France would be complete without a dedicated exploration of the country’s finest product? Indeed, the French take their wine and wine production seriously. Vintners demonstrated such pride in the lead-up to this year’s Tour when A.S.O., the owners of the Tour de France, controversially decided to feature Chilean wines on stages held outside France. Needless to say, the French felt a betrayal of their Tour to their homegrown products in favor of commercial opportunism. In true French fashion, wine producers proposed a boycott of the Tour as it meanders through some of the nation’s most prolific and diverse Appellations d’Origine Controlee, or AOCs. Seemingly, this boycott never manifested.
Debates about supremacy aside, there is something magical about French wines and wine tasting. The AOC system certainly reinforces this with a sort of romanticism that has been branded into wine consumption. Its own rigidity has largely precluded the type of experimentation that has made other wine growing regions around the globe unique and varied. But yet French wine is irresistible, historic, and iconic. On top of that, the tasting experience in France is much more intimate and less corporate than might be experienced elsewhere. Tasting is an experience shared by individuals with one love and language: wine. For me, this was one of the finest memories of traveling in France.
The 2016 Tour de France will pass through several of the country’s notable wine regions: the Loire, Southwest, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Jura, and Savoie. Of twelve major regions, this year’s Tour hits two-thirds. It’s a feast for the palate, but of all 21 stages, Stage 12 alone offers an opportunity to partake in three different regions and numerous AOCs. My wife and I sought out some authentic wines from these appellations and paired them with recommended meals to do our own wine French tasting. So let’s celebrate life by imbibing some vino, savoring some delicious home-made dishes, and quenching that growl in our stomach and parched mouths. Bon appetite!
Languedoc-Roussillon: Saint Drézéry (Château Puech-Haut Le Prestige Rouge 2013 - $17.98)
The Coteaux du Languedoc, or simply Languedoc, encompasses a rather large area in southern France, mainly to the southwest of Montpellier. There are, however, pockets of the appellation’s vineyards to the northeast as well. That’s where the Tour’s Stage 12 began and so shall we. A complex growing region, the Languedoc is further subdivided into fifteen AOCs. One of these is named after the town of Saint Drézéry. Branded in 1768, this is one of the oldest AOCs in the Languedoc and also the smallest. Of course, the Greeks were making wine here well over a millennia ago, even before Roman occupation. Only sixteen kilometers northeast of Montpellier and twenty kilometers from the sea, the soil here is a mix of sandstone and rocky terraces with a climate that known for its hot and dry Mediterranean summers.
Château Puech-Haut sits on a sprawling vineyard of rolling hills two kilometers southwest of Saint Drézéry. It’s a fairly young winery, but you wouldn’t know it by the operation. At the heart of the property is an elegant 17th century château that was saved from demolition and painstakingly moved by owner Gérard Bru. The operation is immaculate. Even the bottles are graceful and elegant, the kind purchased for looks – that is until the temptation of the wine overcomes. My favorite bottle was the Rosé in its frosted glass and pencil etch of the château on the label. Ah, but it’s the vino rouge we’re here to try. The vines surrounding the château are mostly Grenache and Syrah with some white varietals thrown-in for good measure.
True enough, the Château Puech-Haut Prestige Rouge 2013 vintage was in ripe maturation. Composed of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, a juicy steak is the perfect meal for this dark, peppery, full-bodied red wine and that’s just what we did. Steak with pepper rub and sides of broccoli mac and cheese and glazed carrots complimented the wine nicely. Along out tour, this wine was my favorite. I love bold wines with complex flavors and deep red tones typical of a Syrah or Petite Syrah. For me, this is a wine to savor. I could taste the evolution of the wine as it rimmed my mouth with initial notes of cherries and blackberries. But just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the taste of the wine becomes overtaken with a very nice sweetness, like a fireworks grand finale. Wow. This is surely a wine to try.
Rhone Valley: Costières de Nîmes (Chateau de Campuget 2015 Rosé - $9.79)
Moving further north and east, the lands south of the ancient Roman city of Nîmes, encompassing twenty-four villages, have grown and fermented grapes for a millennia or more. This AOC is called Costières de Nîmes. Here too, the soil is pebbly. Combined with a dry and warm climate, the Costières de Nîmes is known for excellent red and rosé wine.
I was able to find a Chateau de Campuget at a large wine proprietor here in California but only a Rosé. Chateau de Campuget is within the village of Manduel, just over twelve kilometers southeast of Nîmes and less than three kilometers from the 2016 Tour route. Set well outside town, the landscape is reminiscent of the Napa Valley, meaning dry and burnt. The Chateau, however, is well shaded and private set in a grand but unfortunately uninteresting provincial mansion. True to form, the soil at Campuget is pebbly thanks to thousands of years of Rhone overflow. The red wines are composed of primarily Syrah and Grenache grapes with this particular production utilizing 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache Noir, notably different from the previous Château Puech-Haut.
We paired this 2015 vintage with a really yummy chorizo and white bean stew that my wife particularly enjoyed. A little on the spicy side was just what my palate and the Campuget Rosé needed. The wine was a nice light pink with fruity tastes of raspberries. Perhaps even better than the taste was the wafting fragrance of blooming fruit coming right out of the glass. Admittedly, a Rosé is not my favorite type of wine and so the Campuget would not be my pick of the bunch here. For under $10 though, this is a refreshing Rosé that would be great for any al fresco summer lunch or dinner. Come for the Rosé and stay for the chorizo white bean stew.
Provence: Les-Baux-de-Provence (Mas de Gourgonnier Rouge 2013 - $14.98)
From Nîmes, the peloton headed due east and so do we. Crossing the Rhone, we head into a beautifully dry but mountainous and rocky area defined by the Alpilles Mountains. Turning off the main road from idyllic Saint-Remy-de-Provence, we pass the ancient Roman oppidum of Glanum nestled in the rocky outcroppings of the Alpilles. Not much further south is the mountain top town of Les Baux-des-Provence. An island in the sky, Les Baux’s gray architecture is a chameleon against the craggy spurs of the mountains. This has been called one of France’s most stunning towns. Surely the lack of automobiles, stunning architecture, sunny vistas, and hectares of vineyards below bring the inevitable tourist looking for that perfect French medieval village. For many, their search ends in Les Baux-des- Provence.
Surrounding the medieval hilltop village is the minute and relatively recent appellation that shares the town’s name. And like the town, Les Baux-des-Provence AOC is an island within the sprawling Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. This AOC was only given designation in 1995 and the only to be fully organic. Here, Mas de Gourgonnier is a giant. It is one of the most well-regarded and obviously well-distributed Baux-des-Provence wines. The vineyard is actually 7.5 kilometers east of the town of Les Baux-des-Provence and 7 kilometers south of Roman Glanum, literally nestled at the foot of the Alpilles Mountains. Here, wih just 47 hectares of vineyards, the Cartier family has perfected their craft.
The wines in Les Baux-des-Provence blend some of my preferred grapes, including grenache, syrah, cabernet-sauvignon, and mourvèdre to produce deep, dark, and even chocolaty wines. To accompany the provincial feel of this area, we paired this 2013 Mas de Gourgonnier Rouge with one of our favorite dishes – a herb and steak salad. The salad mixes basil, mint, and spinach with corn and seasoned skirt steak shreds in a purely olive oil and white wine vinegar dressing. It is an easy but tremendously satisfying concoction. The wine had virtually no legs but was dark red and seemingly very thin. Perhaps not the boldness for which I was hoping. These senses were betrayed by the wine’s very strong, even sweet, aromatics of plum and other fruits. Suddenly things were looking up. Once tasted, this Mas de Gourgonnier brought forth the fruity plum but otherwise was not super flavorful. Again, a great value for a good exotic and organic wine.
Rhone Valley: Côtes du Ventoux (Domaine de Fondreche Nadal Rouge 2011 - $19.99)
Mont Ventoux is a giant. The Rhône River Valley is a similar giant in terms of wine production, filled with wonderfully creative and flavorful wines. The better known portion of the Rhône lies further north towards Valence but in the south, the lands along the Rhône merge with Provence to reveal a unique, underestimated blend. In fact, the Côtes du Ventoux is the second largest Rhone Valley wine producing AOC. At Ventoux, it is said that the strong wintery Mistral forms before blowing south. At these slightly higher elevations, the wine takes shape.
Domaine de Fondreche is an organic vineyard situated 15 kilometers southwest of the Ventoux summit and more precisely 2 kilometers south of St. Pierre de Vassols. In elevation it sits at 193 meters above sea level, the highest of the vineyards we’ve tasted and at only 38 hectares, it is also the smallest. While minute in size, the surrounding countryside is completely engrossed in orderly Côtes du Ventoux vines. The 2011 Nadal is nearly 50% Grenache and 50% Syrah with a splash of Mourvèdre added for a slight “GSM” style.
The pairing for this wine was perhaps our most ambitious. We wanted to try Faisan a la Normande, or pheasant breast with apples but peasant was a lot harder to find than anticipated. So, we needed to substitute boring chicken in the recipe. Nevertheless, the experience was unforgettable. Of course cooked in butter and complimented by a creamy Calvados sauce, the dish was interesting although I think it needed the strong flavors of the pheasant to really make the dish. The Fondreche, ruby red like a cranberry, and soft legs smelled very strong like tobacco. The taste was sharp yet smooth, interestingly not like tobacco but more like blackberries. While my wife might pass on another bottle, I might give this 90 point wine another shot, maybe this time with some gamier meat.