Thursday, July 23, 2009

Out of the Alps, Contre le Montre

It’s been an exciting trip through the Alps. The first half of the final week of the 2009 Tour de France has seen the riders cross borders, scale peaks and stake their claims. It’s seen them suffer. It’s seen many riders implode, with pre-race contenders such as Carlos Sastre (last year’s champ) and Cadel Evans dropping by the wayside, perhaps weighed down both mentally and physically by the huge time deficits they incurred way back in the Stage 4 team time trial. It’s seen others live up to or far exceed expectations. If anyone had told me before the Tour started that Bradley Wiggins would still be in the top six after the Alps, I’d have called them crazy. The Schleck brothers have ridden stupendously, too, especially Frank. The image of them crossing the line in yesterday’s stage, finishing first and third, both with arms raised high, will be one of the classic memories from this year’s Tour, no matter where they figure in the final outcome.

Image courtesy of Roberto Bettini.

Of course, the biggest drama of the week was the ongoing question as to who would finally prove themselves strongest, the team leader of Astana: Armstrong or Contador. It’s played out just as I’d expected, and the team has played up the drama with serious panache and fine tactical sense. There’s little doubt now, barring misfortune, that Alberto Contador will finish the Tour on the top step of the podium. Even with today’s time trial and Saturday’s finish atop Mont Ventoux on the horizon, I think he’s got it locked.

Armstrong himself has been incredibly impressive, coming right back to the top of the sport after three years of retirement. I wasn’t sure he had it in him – not the performance but rather the teamsmanship. He may be struggling a tad more in the high mountains than he did in years past but only a tad. What he’s really been doing is riding in strong support of Contador’s position, watching Alberto go up the road, discouraging other riders from chasing him down by setting a tough tempo, and then managing to drop them to defend his own position in the general classification. The Schlecks may have bumped him down to 4th place after yesterday’s stage. But with today’s time trial and Saturday’s finish atop Mont Ventoux (sound familiar?), don’t count him out of the top three come Sunday’s ride into Paris. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him scratch his way back past one if not both of the Luxembourgian brothers.

Today’s post, though, is dedicated to Jens Voigt. The video above may focus upon Armstrong’s Stage 16 exploits but I like it most because it shows Jens, always the immaculate professional, riding way above his comfort zone in support of his teammates. That’s him about half way through the video, the big guy in the white and black kit of Team Saxobank, leading the group from which Armstrong had been dropped. These are the high Alps, mind you, not the rolling hills where Voigt usually launches his breakaway escapades. Regrettably, Jens crashed out of the Tour later in the same stage, wiping out horrifically during a high speed descent. Luckily, he came through it okay. His crash has been the scariest of the Tour thus far – let’s hope it stays that way. And while his crash is likely to be the image that will be remembered, I prefer to think of him leading the charge up the hill, sacrificing himself for the good of his team.

* * *

It may seem anti-climactic to bring wine into the picture at this point. But I did half-promise, half-threaten to follow the wine trail along the route of this year’s Tour, so here goes. The last few days, as I mentioned above, have seen the riders crossing not just the Alps but also borders, from France into Switzerland into Italy and back again to France. I had no wine in my cellar from the Swiss Valais or from France’s Haute-Savoie, and I didn’t manage to open anything from Italy’s Valle d’Aosta. So I opted for something from right in the midst of it all – the Jura.

Arbois Pupillin Chardonnay, Emmanuel Houillon 2006
$25. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.

When last I drank Houillon’s 2006 Chardonnay, my notes brought its importer Joe Dressner out of the wings. The wine was extremely reductive; not so, this time.

This was definitely a great bottle – subtly funky on the nose and electrically alive in the mouth, with no signs of reduction. What is it about the aromas of so many Jura wines that makes me think of the beach? These are mountain wines after all, not coastal produce. But Houillon’s Chardonnay showed a pungent nose of sandy minerality tied to scents of lemon meringue pie crust that, yep, brought to mind the seashore. It’s full of lees-y high notes in the mouth, in that respect consistent with the last bottle, which made me think of sake. This time around, it was the respective citric and wild yeastiness of witbier and geuze that came to mind. A joy to drink and a great food wine, too. Its combo of mouthwatering acidity, minerality and lemony fruit paired amazingly well with a simple summer dinner of grilled chicken and feta sausages, arugula dressed with good olive oil, and my wife’s latest rendition of potato salad, made with green olives and preserved lemons. I’m quite sure this was the wine Joe D. had in mind.

The "Contre le Montre" part of today's posting title? That's the rather more poetic French for time trial. And a reference to my goal to actually write this and get it posted before today's Stage 18 race against the clock comes to an end. Mission accomplished, I think.


Félicien Breton said...

Thank you David for the tasting note. I had the 1998 and 2002 versions at the same age. My memories are consistent with yours but I would have added a subtle hint of oak treatment (like pastry biscuit or toffee).

David McDuff said...

You're welcome, Felicien. While I agree there's an unmistakable pastry quality to the aromas and flavors of Houillon's Chardonnay, I must admit I've never associated it or any of the other wine's aspects with oak, at least not in any overt sense.

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