Thursday, July 2, 2009

Le Tour de France Commencer! - Provence and the Côte d’Azur

Every year for the last few years I have gone through the moral dilemma of whether or not I am going to watch the Tour de France, and every year I get sucked back in. Like all major sports these days, it has its problems - but there is something about the technicolor Peloton juxtaposed with the classic French scenery whizzing by, the crazy fans, grueling climbs and life endangering descents that truly make this one of the greatest sporting events in the world. Pastoral farms and picturesque villages contrast with dizzying shots of the Pyrenees and the Alps as helicopters and motorcycles cover the race with vertiginous camera angles. The race is one big love affair with the French countryside; eachday as unique and different as the Alps are to the Loire Valley. Add to the normal pre-race buzz the return of record seven time winner American Lance Armstrong, and the stage is set for an exciting Tour. I'm in!

This year it begins in Monaco on July 4th, then to the South of France and Provence, Languedoc, a quick jaunt in and out of Spain and into the Pyrenees for the first of the big climbs. Then up through the Center of France, pastoral plains, fields of grain, through the vineyards of the Loire Valley, Chablis and to Alsace. On to the east of France, back into the high mountains and the Alps, a stint in Switzerland, through the Val d'Aosta in Italy, back to France, more mountains, and into the Haut Savoie, with an hors category final climb of menacing Mont Ventoux before the last day in Paris. Twenty three days, twenty one stages, over 3,500 kilometers.

The whole spectacle reminds me of everything I love about France, how each region is beautiful and unique in its climate, geology, and topography, and how the French love and respect of the land is inextricably interwoven with their traditions and incredible cuisine and wines.

This year I am going to follow the tour vicariously, highlighting each region with a couple wines from upcoming stages so you can travel along the route and live and experience some of the flavors of the regions as you watch the race unfold. Stay tuned!

Stages 1-3: Monaco, Cote D'Azur and Provence

Stage one of the Tour begins rather tamely in the Principality of Monaco on the sparkling Mediterranean. A city better known for Formula One, Grace Kelly and Casinos than wine, it should be a dramatic and glamorous backdrop for the start of the race. Stage 2 (187 kilometers) meanders through the Cote D'Azur, beautiful scenery, and while not well known, there are some very interesting local wines. Stage 3 (196.5 kilometers) entering Provence - land of lavender, sun, and wine. To celebrate the commencer du Tour, the wines of Chateau Pibarnon perfectly capture the soul and character of Provence and the south of France where they are grown and made.

Chateau du Pibarnon is located in Bandol just east of Marseilles where stage three begins. The property is high above the sea, an absolutely gorgeously rugged, rocky amphitheater of vineyard that owner Henri de Saint Victoire purchased in 1975 after visiting and falling in love with it at first sight (and taste). I visited the property back in 1999 and still joke that if I didn't have another appointment later that day I might still be there! I arrived with pal Robin Kelly O'Connor and got the full tour of cellars and vineyards - and then to a private vertical tasting of 10 or so vintages of the red and several of the Rosé, which amazingly ages well.

The 2007 Bandol Blanc is a blend of Clairette (40%), Bourboulenc (20%), with Marsanne, Roussanne and Petit Manseng making the balance. It is fresh and lively with good weight and a mixture of white flowers and hints of peach and apricots. Bouillabaisse, meaty white fish, or all on its own on a lazy summer afternoon! $30/$27 by the mixed case.

The 2008 Bandol Rosé is 50% Mourvèdre and 50% Cinsault - with a lovely coral/salmon hue - hints of raspberry and strawberry and flowers on the nose. On the palate it is refreshing, but also has a bit more complexity than your typical quaffing pink - without being heavy of weighty at all it has lively, layered flavors - perfect with grilled Tuna, Salad nicoise, all kinds of olives, saucisson, grilled vegetables and appetizers too! $26/$23.40 by the mixed case

The 2005 Bandol Rouge is mainly Mourvèdre, which thrives here in the high hills, rocky soils and Mediterranean climate. It is deep and dark, brooding, with earth tones, black cherry,and spices, dense, yet with balance, power and elegance at the same time. Perfect with lamb, game, roasted and grilled meats of all kinds. Accessible now, it will age an improve through 2015 plus! $48/$43.20 by the mixed case.

To buy the wines, visit the shop at 56 Degree Wine, to get updates follow me on Twitter. And don't forget to follow along on Versus television and online at Le Tour de France!

Next Stages 4-5: South from Provence to the Languedoc-Rousillon

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