Wine Ink: The Tour de France takes flight
It’s July and in the world’s premier wine nation, France, the world’s premier cycling event, the Tour de France, is in high gear. The 21-stage Tour began July 1 and ends on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday, July 23.
And, in the cycling mecca of Aspen, Colo., a young sommelier named Greg Van Wagner, who pairs a passion for both riding and wine, has developed a whimsically brilliant promotional program around the Tour. He calls it the “Le Tour Du Vin” and it gives guests at Jimmy’s American Restaurant & Bar in Aspen, where he is wine director, the opportunity to taste a wine each night from the exact wine region where the Tour de France racers are riding that day.
My wife and I have been avid fans of the Tour for years. Most July evenings we can be found at home watching the daily recap show on NBCSN, featuring commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, as we sip French wine. Though we do get inspired by individual riders and storylines, the attraction is not so much the racing as it is the “virtual” tour of the French countryside we get as the peloton races through France.
But Van Wagner has taken his virtual tour to the next-level.
“I began looking at the course of this year’s Tour a couple of months ago,” said the advanced sommelier. “I started with Google Earth and Google Maps to explore the cities and routes, and then went to the GuildSomm site to overlay the communes and appellations that are on the stage routes.”
GuildSomm is a nonprofit international membership organization for sommeliers and wine professionals that doubles as an online educational resource for obsessive wine geeks or those studying for exams.
“There are so many great small village and commune wines that you would rarely get to see or only know by name because you are studying for the exams,” Van Wagner said. “This gave me a chance to bring them alive.”
Once he identified a region and found an interesting wine from that place, the next challenge was sourcing the wines and getting them to Aspen.
“Honestly, there are three wines on the list that even I have never tried,” he laughed with irony. “This is a list of wines that you wouldn’t ever find anywhere else.”
It is a total flight of fancy and that is what makes it so engagingly fun.
People can come into Jimmy’s each day of the Tour and have a glass of the wine representing that day’s stage, at $14 each. The person who tastes the most days and tries the most wines will get a Jimmy’s “Maillot Jaune,” the equivalent of the Tour winner’s Yellow Jersey. If one were to “ride” all 21 stages, the jersey would come at a cool $294, not including tax and tip, of course. But the fun of having a seat at Jimmy’s bar, getting a tasty education in the broad tableau of French regional wines, all while watching Contador, Froome, and Quintana conquer the five-mountain ranges that will be ridden together for the first time since 1992 is, well, priceless.
Van Wagner’s selection of wines is what makes his Tour du Vin so interesting. This year’s Tour includes a trip down the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, the end and beginning of stages in Troyes at the southern end of Champagne, a journey to Nuits- Saint Georges, and a crossing of the Rhone wine region.
“Where I had a choice, I tried to include summer wines, rosé, and bubbles,” he said about his strategy.
To that end there will be a pair of well-known rosés, the Whispering Angel, Côtes de Provence, and the Chateau de Berne “Impatience,” Côtes de Provence, poured as the riders rip through Marseille, and ride the sun-kissed south coast in the later stages. But there will be reds, as well. Pinot Noir from Jura winemaker Valentin Morel will be poured as the peloton heads south from Dole, and Gachot Minot will be featured the day they ride into the commune of Nuits-Saint Georges.
In between, look for obscure pours of wines, like a merlot from Domaine De Couron in Ardeche, a wine made with a grape called mollard from the Hautes- Alpes, France’s highest growing region, and on Bastille Day, a Jean Philippe, Cremant de Limoux, Brut Rose. There will even be a Chartreuse to Voiron.
“I wanted to get wines that were fun and were sourced right next to the actual courses that the riders would be on,” Van Wagner said.
He has succeeded. And as the racers finish on the Champs-Élysées, he will be proud to pour glasses of Billecart-Salmon to celebrate.
Vive le France! Vive Van Wagner.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.