If we’re examining the route of the Tour de France with an eye toward wine, last year’s race was a greatest hits of sorts: the peloton made its way through Champagne, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, and France’s AOC boards laughed all the way to the cellars. Not so in 2015; this year, it seems the underdogs will be getting their due. The first leg of the race took us through the Northern hinterlands of Brittany and Normandy, where the chilly climate has lent its influence to the favor of cider and beer production for hundreds of years. When the route does turn south, it’s first to the rugged wilds of Southwest France in the foothills of the Pyrenees — through the overlooked regions of Jurançon, Gaillac and Irouleguy — before it heads east through the Massif Central and into the gauntlet provided by the cliffs of the Ardèche, Savoie, and Haut-Alps.
While it’s true that most of us are likely unfamiliar with these far-flung sub-appellations and rustic terroir, following this year’s route from your glass is perhaps a more authentic experience of French culture and history than the years past, when the regions represented were the usual suspects. This year, you might have to work a little harder to find some of the bottles we’ve paired with the route, but when it comes to the winner of the Tour, the best things never come easy.
Beer and Cider
La Choulette Blonde, Cambrai
This year, the tour drops down over the Belgian border directly into the town of Cambrai, a medieval-era village once known for its excellence in all things beer. In particular, the uniquely French style known as Bière de Garde hails from these northeastern throes of Gallic culture, and Brasserie La Choulette is one of the few remaining breweries still crafting the saison-esque suds. The brewery produces a revival-style beer called Blanche de Cambrai in honor of a long-forgotten local recipe, and if you’re Tour-side this year, be sure to seek it out — it’s not imported to the States. Choulette’s Blonde is a worthy substitute for its namesake sibling, though: Rustic and aromatic, it’s complex but refreshing. Be careful not to overindulge, gentlemen. This is a race.
Castelain Ambrée, Arras
Traveling northwest, we’re keeping the energy up with another bière de garde. This time it’s an amber from the century-old Brasserie Castelain in the Pas de Calais region. Fuel up for the trek to Normandy with some boudin noir and this perfect balance of malt and hops. A leader in its category.
Le Pére Jules Cidre de Normandie, Pays d’Auge, Normandy
In Normandy, cider reigns supreme (and calvados — but we want to finish the race). Once France’s second-most-popular beverage (runner up only to wine, of course), we’re rooting for cider’s revival as more producers’ bottles make their way stateside. The four generations of Desfrièches men behind Père Jules have worked hard to preserve the classically dry, rustic expression of this regional hard stuff, and we’re happy to watch it edge Magner’s off the cider track any day.
Cyril Zang’s Sparkling Cider, Glos, Calvados
Made from a blend of over 15 different varieties of apple, this is true French cidre brut — dry, crisp and slightly funky. If ever there was a pairing for fromage de tête, this is it.
Bordelet Poiré de Normandie, Domfrontais, Normandy
The classic calvados style is of the apple persuasion, but Eric Bordelet dives deep into his hometown’s historic production of poiré (effectively pear cider) for his biodynamically produced Poiré Authentique. Bordelet’s former gig as sommelier at Paris’ Arpège might have something to do with the endless complexity in this perfect summer sipper. It’s elegant, sure, but it stays true to its country origins with rustic wildflower and fresh hay in the glass. Pour out a tumbler’s worth and send your domestique back for the ripest wheel of Camembert he can find.
Rosé, Syrah and No Post-Fermentation Tinkering
Domaine Illaria Rosé, Irouleguy, Southwest France
The second leg of the Tour finds us in the wilds of southwestern France. This rugged landscape at the foot of the Pyrenées is rich with cultural entanglements in every realm, from its language to its politics to its winemaking traditions. Here you’ll find a nearly Spanish sensibility when it comes to the wines — sultry and wild, they reflect the landscape from whence they came. This dry rosé from old vines of Tannat and Cabernet Franc is the creation of old-school winemaker Peio Espil in the tiny appellation of Irouleguy, and it’s deeply mineral with savory notes of wild herbs and black fruit. An appropriately meditative wine for the occasion of getting one’s head in one’s game.
Benjamin Taillandier “Six Roses”, Minervois, Languedoc-Roussillon
Conjure up your best French accent. Now say “Six Roses” five times fast for the condition Monsieur Taillandier warns you might develop due to the outrageous gulp-ability of this rosé hailing from Minervois (it helps if you’re a little drunk already). Keep it moderate, of course, but as the peloton makes its way past Minervois, just north of the Mars landscape that is the Languedoc-Roussillon into the hills of the Massif Central, we suggest having a bottle of this undeniable vin de soif on ice to keep it fresh.
Levet “La Chavaroche”, Côte Rôtie
The steep cliffs and rugged terrain of the Ardèche and Northern Rhône make for some of the most dramatic riding of the tour; the brutal, pre-Alpine terrain at this stage of the race historically separates les garçons from les hommes. Appropriately, it’s from this cool, brooding landscape that you’ll find some of France’s greatest oenological powers producing wines of quiet magnitude. Côte Rôtie, the northernmost tip of the Rhône Valley, is particularly known for unleashing austere, borderline forbidding reds based in a blend of Syrah and Viognier. Architectural, ferrous and imposing, they are — how do you say? — serious shit.
In circumstances such as these, some producers are tempted to take the edge off — to make their wines a little less challenging, a little more approachable — via post-fermentation tinkering and lots of new oak. Not Bernard Levet. From the peak of his ancient vineyards, Levet looks at the sweat forming on your brow and laughs. À bon vin, point d’enseigne. If you’re man enough, you’ll understand.
Luc et Denis Lattard Syrah, Drôme
Not all good Syrah is highborn. Since 1995, the Lattard brothers have been at work reviving their family’s winemaking traditions in the Drôme, the cliff-laden but decidedly less menacing region just east of the Rhône Valley. Their region is a lesser-known one, but the brothers’ successes at producing fresh, easygoing wines not lacking in depth suggest they might be leading a pack of their own. Their Syrah is the Raymond Poulider of this lineup — affable, joyful, well liked by all.
Belluard “Ayse Brut”, Savoie
Congratulations, gentlemen — the podium awaits. For your efforts, you deserve a glass (or three) of one of France’s most exquisite sparkling wines. No, it’s not Champagne — that’s been done (112 times). This year, we’re toasting the yellow jersey with bubbles hailing from the Alpine climes of Savoie, the region that comprises the final stretch of the Tour in 2015. Here, Dominique Belluard tends his unlikely vineyards of the rare gringet grape with a view of Chamonix, and his precision in the cellar results in this razor-sharp, steely expression of the ancient terroir surrounding his estate. Mineral and complex, it is luxury and reward in a glass — with plenty of fizz for celebratory dousing.
Violet Frères Byrrh Grand Quinquina, Languedoc, Southwest France
Hailing from the Languedoc, this herbal apéritif’s power comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, that magical South American plant that puts the tonic (aka quinine) in your G&T’s and kept Europeans malaria-free for centuries. True to its original 19th-century recipe, the blend of medicinal herbs should assist with everything from dehydration to headaches to digestion. Pas mal. Pour a few ounces over ice and serve with an orange twist.
Dolin Genepy des Alpes
Depending on who you ask, genepy is either a colloquial name for wormwood, a generalized reference to any number of geographic locales in the Alpine regions of Savoy/Valle d’Aosta, or the name of a deliciously herbal liquor with a cultural tug-of-war behind its origins. Whether French, Italian or something in between, we’re happy to drink up and let the traditionally medicinal herbs in this Chartreuse-esque tipple work their magic. Sip it simply over ice or in any of these pretense-free cocktails.