Stage 12 saw Norwegian Alexander Kristoff take the win from Peter Sagan, who was second over the line. The big German sprinters, Kittel and Greipel, were nowhere near, in Greipel’s case because of a crash at a roundabout just a few kilometres from the finish. Greipel seemed very annoyed to have worked so hard all day to get himself into position and stay there, only to have someone else’s error take him out of contention, but frankly, in this year’s Tour, if you’re able to get up and continue, you should still be grateful. There are a lot of top contenders nursing injuries at home watching the coverage on television.
Stage 13 is one for the serious climbers, and may well reshuffle the standings. The Col de Palaquit is a first-category climb that the Tour has never visited before, and and this has been nothing if not an unpredictable race.
Before the riders make their way up to the race’s finish at the ski station of Chamrousse, however, they’ll pass close to some of the outstanding vineyards of the Northern Rhône, including Côte-Rôtie, which is located to the south of Vienne, just under 20 miles south of Lyon. The landscape has been worked since Roman times, and since the very beginning the steepness of the terrain, sometimes as much as a 60% gradient, has required effort and ingenuity. To secure the soil, stone walls called “cheys” were built, and most vineyards are planted on south- or southeast-facing slopes along the Rhône River. The climate is continental in the northern Rhône, instead of the Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône, and the winters are usually wet and marked by cold mistral winds.
The slopes of the Côte-Rôtie are called Côte Brune and Côte Blonde. Legend has it that a 16th-century lord who owned the Côte-Rôtie divided his land between his two daughters, with half going to his golden-haired daughter (the Côte Blonde) and half to his dark-haired daughter (the Côte Brune). A less fanciful interpretation is that the Côte Blonde has pale granite and schist soils, producing wines of finesse and elegance, whereas the soil of the Côte Brune is a dark, iron-rich schist that produces a firmer wine. Both granite and schist retain heat, essential to holding the sun’s warmth as long as possible against the mistral winds.
Côte-Rôtie is the northernmost Côtes-du-Rhône cru and has been a registered AOC since 1940 and has 73 listed locations and over 100 producers. The wines of Côte-Rôtie are always red and made of Syrah, with up to a limit of 20% Viognier. Syrah produces wines with a deep colour and rich tannins, while the Viognier added fragrance, freshness and elegance. The AOC regulations stipulate that the Viognier must be added to the fermentation rather than blended later.
Classic Côte-Rôtie is deep colour and tannic from the Syrah, and need a decade to evolve and develop. The nose is among the most characteristic and unique aspects of the wine, with an aroma that frequently conjures up notes of green olives, raspberries, floral notes such as violet, and a meaty scent many people call bacony. The balance between these seemingly contradictory notes is fragile, delicate and not soon forgotten. The subtly savoury elements are the result of fermentation with stems — in whole bunches, in fact. It’s a technique that can add harsh tannins, but which in the hands of a master creates an array of scents, flavours and structure that could never be anything but a wine from Côte-Rôtie.
That’s the classic style of the region, however, and it has lost ground in recent decades to bolder, fruitier wines, with woody flavours from aging in new oak barrels. This newer style makes excellent wines that fetch high prices and garner high praise from wine critics such as Robert M. Parker, Jr., and they have raised the reputation of the region considerably. The most important force in the transformation of Côte-Rôtie has been the winery and négociant Guigal, which in the hands of Marcel Guigal in particular has demonstrated a fanatical dedication to quality. Guigal’s three single vineyard wines La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, set the record for the most expensive release of any Rhône wine, retailing for as much as $800 per bottle.
As the older generation of winemakers dies out, there is less and less of the older style of Côte-Rôtie, as Eric Asimov’s lamented in the New York Times in 2012, but he noted, too, that there is an active middle ground between old and new where the older style and modern reinterpretation happily coexist. With such high quality and fascinating wines in all of the styles, wine-drinkers will always find something special from the region.