Polish rider Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo yesterday took his first ever professional victory in Risoul, bringing a bit of joy back to the Tinkoff-Saxo team that hasn’t had much to smile about since team leader Alberto Contador was forced to abandon the race with a fractured leg. Majka’s win was all the more extraordinary because he wasn’t even supposed to be at the Tour de France this year, but was only a last-minute substitute for Roman Kreuziger, whose biological passport came under scrutiny. With so many team leaders either gone from the race, as Froome and Contador are, or vanishing from the leaderboard, as an exhausted Richie Porte seems to be doing, the individual stage wins have never seemed more open. The one constant is the wearer of the yellow jersey, Vincenzo Nibali. Some are suggesting he could have beaten Majka in the last few kilometres of the race, but allowed him to win both because neither Majka nor Tinkoff-Saxo are a threat to the yellow jersey and because the Tinkoff-Saxo team might be in a position to help Nibali in some way during this last week. We were glad to see Jakob Fuglsang was still racing, despite his crash the day before, and he still able to put in a strong performance.
Today’s stage from Tallard to Nîmes is mostly flat, and the sprinters, who may have suffered over the tough mountain stages of the past few days, will again get a chance to shine. The strong winds may provide the real drama of the day. As rider Jean-Christophe Péraud was quoted as saying, “Wind! If it’s from the north of south, it’s across us all day and a well-motivated team could play mischief.”
As the race passes through Provence, we’ve decided take a look at one of the famous sweet wines of the region, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Beaumes de Venise is a village in Vaucluse near Vacqueyras and Gigondas. The story goes that the ancient Greeks first brought the muscat grape to Beaumes de Venise, and Roman historian Pliny the Elder was already calling the wine of the village remarkable.
The climate has a Mediterranean influence. It’s hot and dry with the Mistral tempered by the Dentelles de Montmirail massif. The soil of the north is a sandy marl, and the south is a clay-limestone mix. Vines are planted on narrow terraces called restanques or faysses, and are supported by stone walls.
Apart from Clairette de Die, which we talked about yesterday, this is the only part of the Rhône where Muscat grapes are grown, and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise was given AOC classification in 1945. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is made from muscat à petits grains blanc and noir, and grapes are hand-harvested to select only fruit of the correct level of ripeness with a sugar content of over 252g/L. Mutage, the addition of grain alcohol to stop the fermentation of the sugars, must be performed with pure alcohol of at least 96%. The wines must contain at least 100g/L of sugar and feature at least 15% alcohol content. Sweet wines fortified with grape spirit in this way are called vins doux naturels. The resulting wine is more delicate than the high sugar and alcohol content would suggest, with a pale-gold colour, and fragrant floral and tropical fruit flavours.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is one of those sweet wines you may like having as an apéritif or after a meal in place of a dessert, but it is most commonly served as a dessert wine. In terms of dessert pairings, one of the most frequent recommendations is to try Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with strawberries and cream. The wine seems to have a particular affinity for berries in general, and it rarely goes amiss with berry desserts, desserts with caramel flavours or ice cream. Another common way of serving it in Provence is with Cavaillon melons.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is frequently used in recipes as well, such as these:
Panna Cotta with Muscat Wine and Acacia Honey (this recipe doesn’t specify Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, but it would work well)
The Beaumes de Venise cake with grapes has been on our short list to try for a while, but the recent heatwave in England has put us off all inessential baking. Not drinking, though, so we recently tried Château Juvenal Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013.
The estate that would become today’s Château Juvenal grew olives for generations, but in the 1950s, after a terrible frost destroyed 80% of the olive trees, the first grapevines were planted. At first the wine was not marketed, then the fruit grown on the estate was brought to a local cooperative Only in more recent years was the château itself fully restored and the decision made to make and market wine. Château Juvenal’s first vintage was in 2011. There is also a bed and breakfast on the estate. If you’re interested, there are reviews and photos of the gorgeous 19th century estate on Winerist, Provence Ventoux: Le Blog, and Château Juvenal’s website.
While we both thought Château Juvenal Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013 was a very good sweet wine, we had slightly different opinions of it, so here are both tasting notes.
Daniel: While I’ve always found the high alcohol content of most vins doux naturels can mute the fruit flavours of the wine, leaving just the hot alcohol burn of the spirit in bad examples, this wine has avoided that. You get the fantastic fruit and floral flavours of the muscat grape coming through, and while you do get a bit of alcohol burn, here you can really appreciate the orange blossom, honeysuckle, peach and lychee flavours. All in all, a wine for the producers to be proud of.
Janet: I don’t have as much taste for sweet wine as Daniel does, but this one was sweet without being sitcky sweet and cloying. The first flavours I noticed were stone fruits and hot white flowers. It also had a long honeyed finish that was exceptional. I definitely prefer this to the richness of most ports, the thick treacle flavours of Pedro Ximénez sherry, and the flavours of wines made from botrytised grapes, such as Sauternes, so if you are looking for a dessert wine but don’t generally like them, this would be one to try.
24/7/2014 Edited to add: I baked the Beaumes de Venise Cake with Grapes yesterday and it didn’t turn out well. That’s the first time I’ve baked grapes, and they aren’t improved by it. The texture of the cake was heavy and wet (and wetter still in places where the grapes had exploded), and there was no flavour from either the citrus or the wine, except for a slightly unpleasant taste at the end that I think came from the alcohol. I wouldn’t bake it again, but if you’re interested in other opinions, there were lots of very positive reviews with the recipe (see link above).