Wines of Le Tour de France

2017 Tour Map

2017 Le Tour de France

It’s that time of year again when Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (as well as the superhuman riders) light up the screen with their fascinating Tour de France coverage interspersed with local facts about the beautiful regions the Tour passes through. Three weeks of bike racing with some daily rides over 120 miles leaves the announcers some downtime to dig into local culture which got me thinking about all the interesting vineyard and wine-related areas the riders are passing through.

Stage 1

The Tour started this year in Dusseldorf which is home to ProWein which is the biggest international wine fair held each March. While Dusseldorf itself is too far north to grow grapes, there are plenty of nearby options from the famous Mosel and Rheingau wine regions.  World-class Riesling of all styles (dry, off-dry, and sweet) may be found here with all of them sharing lively acidity and brilliant mineral notes. Look for any wines produced by Selbach-Oster – fantastic! 

Stage 2

The Tour went through Belgium next which focuses on varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and also produces sparkling wines.  80% of Belgium’s wine is white with 15 approved varieties.

Stage 3

Stage 3 took the riders through 3 countries in one day: Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Luxembourg has been making wine since Roman times but its wine is rarely found outside the country as most is not exported.  White wines dominate and crémant (sparkling) wine is also popular.  Auxerrois (a Pinot Blanc relative) is a beloved white grape and does particularly well here due to its low acidity which is important in a cooler region.

Stage 4

Stage 4 passed through the Côtes de Toul which produces a local Vin Gris wine.  While the name translates to “gray wine”, in reality the wine is light pink and typically made from Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes.  Quiche Lorraine is also a regional specialty that pairs quite well with Vin Gris.

Vosges Mountains

Vosges Mountains

Stage 5

Stage 5 ended with a dramatic climb into La Planche des Belles Filles which is located in the Vosges Mountains.  The Vosges are an important geographic feature for Alsace as it provides a rain shadow which creates drier and warmer growing conditions for Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewüztraminer, and Muscat grapes.

Stage 6

Stage 6 was the first entry into Champagne (enough said there) passing into the Aube département.  The local specialty here is Rosé des Riceys which is a pale pink wine made from “bleeding off” some of the Pinot Noir juice after a short maceration with the skins.

Stage 7

Stage 7 brought the Tour’s first-ever appearance in the town of Nuits-St-Georges which shares its name with one of the most famous Burgundy (Pinot Noir) appellations.  Wines from this region are known for their animal/game aromas, robust tannins, and powerful style.

Vin Jaune clavelin bottle

Vin Jaune clavelin bottle

Stage 8

The Stage 8 ride included a ride through the Jura which is a fascinating wine region showcasing the rarely seen Savagnin (a Sauvignon Blanc parent) and the highly unique Vin Jaune.  Vin Jaune, which means “yellow wine”, is an unfortified wine made from Savagnin grapes and aged for at least 5 years with a film-forming yeast called voile on top of it.  The voile imparts unusual aromas that resemble that of a dry sherry.  Vin Jaune is easy to spot as it comes in a squarish bottle called a clavelin and its incredibly long distinctive finish makes it unforgettable after one taste.

Stay tuned for more Tour wines next week and here’s the map if you want to follow along:

http://about-france.com/tourism/tour-de-france.htm#route

P.S. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Gay (https://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-phil-will-make-you-love-the-tour-de-france-1498759126) said that Phil likes French red wines, Montrachets (white Burgundies), and Sancerres.  I wonder what Paul is drinking as well as Paul Burmeister, Bob Roll, and Christian Vande Velde (the captivating studio and analyst hosts).

 

Touring Germany’s Rheinhessen and Mosel regions

After such a fascinating visit with Reh Kendermann, we were excited to see more of Germany’s wines.   Our next stop was Weingut Hofmann, also in the Rheinhessen region.  Jürgen Hofmann (owner and winemaker) hosted us for at least half a day showering us with the widest range of dry Rieslings and German whites wines I’ve tried.  We tasted several interesting German varieties such as Silvaner, Scheurebe, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris), as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Jürgen specializes in dry (trocken) wines as do most winemakers in Rheinhessen.  His Rieslings were over-the-top spectacular, literally vibrating with electric acidity and brilliant minerality.  I don’t usually care for Chardonnay and even that was fantastic in a neutral-oaked style.

Willems & Hofmann Soils

Willems & Hofmann Soils

When young, Jürgen’s Rieslings exhibit a range of flavors such as spice, yellow fruit, citrus, and saline notes depending on what soil they came from.  Those grown on red slate like the 2015 Riesling “vom Rotliegenden” tasted of yellow peach and lime with firm structure on the palate.  Limestone soil yields more saline and minerality with great complexity and elegance.  Jürgen has 4 kinds of soils in his vineyards including limestone, volcanic, red slate, and blue slate (clockwise from right in picture).

There were so many excellent Rieslings it’s hard to name a favorite but one of them was definitely the 2015 Hundergulden Riesling which was dancing with minerality, saline notes, white flowers, savory spice and ended with a brilliantly crisp and lingering finish. Hundergulden Riesling

Another favorite was the 2015 Laurenzikapelle Sauvignon Blanc.  This was a complex wine with flavors of figs, coconut, yellow cake, and wet rocks due to 2 days of skin contact and aging in old barrels. Skin contact adds complexity and depth while old barrels round out the wine’s texture.   This was a Sauvignon Blanc like I’ve never tasted and one I wish I could taste on a daily basis.

We also got to try Jürgen’s 2015 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) right out of the barrel which was also fantastic.  Whole bunch fermentation is used (literally using the entire grape cluster without de-stemming or crushing it) as the clusters end up crushing themselves which kicks off fermentation.  Many Pinot Noir winemakers prefer this process as it’s very gentle and results in delicate wines and fresh flavors.

Jürgen’s wife Carolin is also a renowned winemaker and makes wines at their other estate, Willems Willems, in the Saar region.  She makes a variety of Rieslings as well as many on the off-dry or sweeter side.  Several of these are sold in the U.S. so be on the lookout for them.  Americans tend to still prefer sweeter wines according to market data so most of the German wines we see here are in that category (unfortunately that means none of Jürgen’s wines are sold here yet).

Weingut Hofmann vines

Weingut Hofmann vines

Weingut Willems is a beautiful place to spend a morning with a striking and contemporary tasting room on the edge of a tiny town called Appenheim.  Stunning views and amazing hospitality abound and it was a phenomenal visit with wines I will never forget and hope to see again.

http://www.schiefer-trifft-muschelkalk.de/en/hofmann-zur-person.php

The next day we set off for the Mosel region.  An iconic region known for its grape-defying steep slopes and endlessly twisting Mosel River, this is a land of a million microclimates which produces truly special grapes.  A boat trip down the lazy Mosel River illustrates how the light changes constantly on the many angles of the slopes and river turns.  Add misty mornings and a large temperature range between day and night and you have one of the most unique wine-growing areas in the world (and also one of the furthest north at 50 degrees latitude).

If you drive in the Mosel region, be aware that all of those twists and turns make what looks like 45 miles on the map turn into 2 hours pretty easily but you can’t beat the beauty and absolute remoteness of the little roads leading from town to town.  There is a faster way via the A5 but you’d miss the sheer cliff drop-offs, lightly trickling waterfalls, and the soft-brown deer eyes I spotted watching us from the forest.  Thankfully she stayed in the forest.  And by all means get a GPS in your car as you won’t understand the ten-syllable pronunciations being called out and will need the step-by-step guide (unless you know German).

Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in Mosel

Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in Mosel

We made our way eventually to Weingut Selbach Oster in the charming riverside town of Zeltingen.  Another incredible visit awaited us with a tour by Barbara Selbach and a phenomenal tasting with Johannes Selbach.  I was once again blown away by the hospitality we were shown and the rich passion that these winemakers exude when showing and describing their wines.  Being in the Mosel with its unique climate and proximity to the river, this winery focuses more on off-dry and sweeter wines.  The Mosel is renowned for its sweet wines, many of which originate due to the cool and wet mornings which inspire botrytis.  Botrytis is a special mold also called “noble rot” that removes the water from the grapes and leaves only the sugar to concentrate and shrivel the grapes into a decadent form.

We tasted our way through a full range of Rieslings from dry to sweet.  They differed by vintage, growing site, and sweetness.  Sweeter styles are classified by increasing degrees of grape harvest sugar levels – Kabinett, Spätlese, Eiswein , Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).  The difference between these categories is based on when the grapes were harvested (their sugar levels) and if the grapes were affected by botrytis.  Selbach Oster sources their grapes from 5 different vineyards located at various elevations and sun exposures along the Mosel River.    You can see the vineyards here:

http://www.selbach-oster.de/en/our-native-land.html

The 2014 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken was classically styled with a linear structure, vibrant acidity, and flavors of fresh grass, citrus, slight petrol, apricot and honey.  Made from ungrafted 70 year old vines, this is one of Selbach Oster’s top wines.  Priced at 14.5 Euros, this wine is also quite an incredible buy.  Alcohol was 12% with 7 grams of residual sugar per liter.

Selbach Oster wines

Selbach Oster wines

The 2013 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Feinherb (another term for “off-dry”) had a touch of botrytis in it which Johannes identified by the honey, smoke, and almost bacon-fat notes in it.  He said that botrytis makes a wine sweeter, fatter in body, and smokier tasting.  This wine also had a pleasant yeastiness on the nose along with dried apricots and marmalade.  Alcohol was 12.5% with residual sugar of 23 g/L.  Johannes said this wine would age 50 years!

One of the wines I’ll never forget was the 1976 Wehlener Hofberg Riesling Spätlese.  This deeply colored lemon gold wine was ethereal tasting of lemon, petrol, slate, lanolin, honey, savory spice, chicory, mango, and beeswax. You can tell by that long list of descriptors how unique and complex the wine was.  Utterly mouthcoating and lush in texture, it ended on a perfectly clean zippy finish due to Riesling’s characteristic high acid which helps a wine like this age so long and remain so fresh even after 40 years.  Alcohol was 9% with residual sugar of 60 g/L.  This wine was a masterpiece and Johannes told us that 1976 was a well-regarded year with high ripeness and relative opulence by Mosel standards. Be on the lookout for this vintage if you get to try or buy it.Selbach76

After the tasting, we headed to our second bed and breakfast which was in the idyllic town of Cochem and situated right along the Mosel River.  I did immense research before the trip on the best towns to stay in the Mosel area and opted for Cochem due to location, size, and proximity to boat rides, trains, and walkability.  It was a perfect choice for us.  We stayed in the Hotel Villa Vinum which was a fantastic spot, located about 5 minutes walk from the center of Cochem.  It has its own parking lot and modern, spacious rooms with balconies facing the Mosel River.  I highly recommend it (think there were 10 rooms) all with different décor.  Driving in the smaller towns is crowded and parking is hard to find so it was great to park at the hotel and not use the car for a few days.

Riverboats on the Mosel

Riverboats on the Mosel

Watching the river boats come in daily to dock for the night was fun and while there were many tourists in town from these boats during the day, the hoards thinned at night and it didn’t have an overly-crowded feeling even in mid-July.  Cochem has many good restaurants, wineries, and cute shops.  Castello and Ristorante da Vinci (oddly both Italian) were quite good.  Castello offers a lovely second floor patio and Ristorante da Vinci has a relaxing terrace overlooking the Mosel.  Dazert was an authentic German restaurant.  So authentic in fact that we had no idea what we was on the menu or what we were eating.  My dad knew a remarkable amount of German but the nuances of a menu eluded us both.  We ended up with the most interesting vegetable omelet I’ve had with the most sinful potatoes ever.  I’m not sure what they were fried in but they were outstanding.  We also started with an appetizer that we thought would be meatballs but it was more like spinach balls with meat on the outside.  I tried a glass of St. Laurent, a pale light-bodied red wine, which went well with the meal but didn’t have enough zip to try again.

I was pleasantly surprised how few people spoke English in the smaller towns like Cochem.  It felt like we were really in a different country which was nice.  Grapevines are sold all over town at wine shops and even at the gas stations.  Cochem has many terrific tasting rooms where you can just wander in and taste with no appointment.  One of the best was Weingut Walter Oster (no relation to above).  Once again the German hospitality appeared with our host pouring far more wines than we could drink.  We tried everything from sparkling wine (Sekt in Germany) to dry and sweet local varieties like Dornfelder, Muller Thurgau, and Silvaner as well as an eiswein (ice wine).  Ice wines are those made from grapes left on the vine to freeze through the winter.  They are magnificently concentrated, luscious, and exceptionally pure in flavors.

Cochem from Reichsburg Castle

Cochem from Reichsburg Castle

Reichsburg Castle

Reichsburg Castle

Other fun things to do in Cochem are to take a tour of the Reichsburg Castle (an hour in length), take a boat ride down the Mosel (many options from 1-hour to all-day cruises), and by all means don’t miss the bakeries which have beautiful mouthwatering pastries stacked high made from apples and marzipan.  Lastly consume all the beer and pretzels that you can.  I rarely drink beer as I’m a wine lover but the beers here are outstanding (and of course the giant pretzels).