Friday, July 9, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 6: Montargis to Gueugnon

Today's stage coverage and photos come to us courtesy of Jim Budd, a freelance drinks journalist, regular contributor to both "Decanter" and Hugh Johnson's "Pocket Wine Guides," and author of the aptly titled Loire-centric wine blog, Jim's Loire. Jim splits his time between London and the Touraine. Like me, he's a big cycling fan; you'll find his daily thoughts on Le Tour at Jim's Loire.

The longest stage of this year’s Tour (227.5 km) takes the riders deep into the heart of rural France. The route skirts some of the Central Loire vineyards and the hilly Morvan before ending near the famous Charolais beef country.

Pouilly-sur-Loire marks the halfway point of La Loire. Sign on the bridge over the river.

Officially described as flat this stage will be much more undulating than the previous two stages and includes four 4th category climbs – nothing difficult but less obviously a sprinters’ stage. It may also be a stage where a breakaway manages to stay away as the peloton conserves its energy for the Alpine stages that start on Saturday, especially given the current heat.

The stage starts in Montargis, which is about 70 miles south of Paris. Known in part for the production of saffron but also for its waterways in the centre of the old town. It is sometimes called the Venice of the Gatinais, a region of forests and flat agricultural land.

Unlike last year the 2010 Tour will not traverse any of the Loire’s vineyards apart from a brief and flying glimpse of some of Vouvray’s vineyards as the riders hurtle north to Paris on the TGV (high speed train) after the time trial through the Médoc vineyards. Otherwise Stage 6 is the only one that passes relatively close to any of the Loire’s vineyards. Today’s route runs parallel to the Loire.

Pouilly and La Loire.

Firstly it travels a little to the east of the small appellation of Coteaux du Giennois, whose whites are made from Sauvignon and whose best reds by rights ought to be made from 100% Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, due to an unfathomable and insane doctrine, minor Loire appellations around here have to blend some Gamay with their Pinot Noir. Who's ever heard of a really good wine made from a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir? The appellation takes it name from the town of Gien on the Loire, more famous for its porcelain than the wine.

The route also passes fairly close (about 12 miles to the east) to the Coteaux Charitois, a vin de pays based around the two hamlets of Chasnay and Saint-Lay. This was a quite important vineyard before the arrival of phylloxera just before the First World War. Then it virtually disappeared until being revived some 30 years ago. Serge Dagueneau, the well-known producer in Pouilly, has long had some vines here including Pinot Noir, so he is able to make some red. Alphonse Mellot is now the largest producer here with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir branded Les Pénitents having bought some 18 hectares here in 2005.

Alphonse Mellot.

Their Chardonnay is a reminder that Sancerre and Pouilly are actually considerably closer to Chablis and the vineyards of the Yonne than they are to those of Touraine. Indeed Pouilly is administratively part of Burgundy. When the race passes through Saint-Fargeau, one of the stages Mark Cavendish won last year, the riders will be just 40 miles west of Chablis.

I have to admit that I don’t know the area that much of today’s route passes through and I suspect that this may well be equally true for many French people. I have briefly visited the Morvan but that must be some 30 years ago It tends to be a forgotten region. Although he wasn’t born here the late French President, François Mitterrand, put the area of the map as he was the Mayor of Château-Chinon for many years. Incidentally there is no connection here with AC Chinon. As far as I know there aren’t any vines in the Morvan as the climate is too harsh.

There's beauty to be found in the little known Brionnais countryside...

Gueugnon, where the stage finishes, is on the River Arroux, a tributary of the Loire, which is around 10 miles away. It is also only some 25 miles from Charolles home of France’s Charolais beef. Unfortunately the riders won’t have time to tarry but the area around Charolles and the associated Brionnais region has much rural charm, is well worth exploring and is little known.

...and fantastic beef.

Those not intending to race up into the Alps on Saturday should enjoy a juicy Charolais steak along with a bottle of 2005 Sancerre Rouge from a top producer such as Alphonse Mellot, the Vacherons, Vincent Pinard or Lucien Crochet. Santé et bon appétit!

Up next: Into the Jura.

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