The Tour de France developed naturally in a country with landscapes that are a paradise for cyclists. Small roads with little traffic wander through an extremely wide variety of countryside. This countryside becomes “terroir” when it is in wine country, and in France, some of the best riding is through these wonderful vineyards. The combined passions of cycling and wine become “velo et vigne” in French, and are wonderful combined activities. Cycling through the countryside in the beginning of the day provides the time and pace to observe, to get to know the terroir in its exposure, color, heat, and soil, so that later in the evening, seated in front of the menu, there is a reason for choices, an appreciation of the sunlight and soil, and its possible influence on the wine in your hand.
The riding provides the connection and an appetite to enjoy the French culinary and wine excellence and diversity. There are a lifetime of choices in France for this activity. It is a rare area in France that does not have vineyards. Here I will share highlights of experiences and information from three exceptional regions: Burgundy, the Loire, and la Côte Vermeille (the Vermilion coast).
This Is a land of wine legend arcing from the famous white wines of Chablis then south past Dijon, through the famous wine city of Beaune, on to Macon, and finally stretching further south through the Beaujolais nearly to Lyon. The area has many opportunities for cycling, with wonderful combinations of flat lands with rolling hillsides, all covered in vineyards, bordered by ancient stone walls, with hilltops covered in monk caps of forests.
Cycling in the morning will allow an understanding of the complexity of the wines as you pass through domains of diverse soils and changing exposure to the sun, sliced by ravines that channel winds that influence the grapes, and therefore the wines. The geographical features and weather elements that we ride through help explain and add appreciation to the wide diversity of wines and wine quality, from just a few grape varieties (mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with some Aligoté, and Gamay in the Beaujolais).
In spite of its fame, Burgundy has a simple, rustic, and authentic feel. Excellent winemaking is in the bones and the blood of the people and the place. There is no need to show off with fancy chateaus, just solid stone, centuries-old structures. Make sure to visit Beaune, one of the wine centers of the world. In Beaune, your choice of restaurants is excellent, and mealtime can take up much of the day. Each of the neighboring towns will have at least one excellent auberge, or inn, and often more to choose from, and each is proud of its own distinctive wines. For a good appreciation and comparison of the wines of Burgundy, a wine tasting at the Patriarche in Beaune is an unforgettable experience.
Pro Tip: The cycle route from Beaune to Santenay is a magnificent ride on a paved cycle track bordered by stone walls draped with rose bushes. This is terroir for distinctive and complex white wines from chardonnay grapes that are among the best in the world (Montrachet, Meursault) and red wines of Pinot Noir (Monthelie, Volnay, Pommard) that are known for elegance and finesse.
2. The Loire Valley
For a highlight adventure in the Loire valley, I would advise starting where Joan of Arc started: in Chinon. This is the very center of the Loire. East you have the wonderful vineyards and white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé and west you will end on the Atlantic coast at Nante with aromatic Muscadet, a perfect match for the shrimps, oysters, and mussels of the Brittany sea coast. In Chinon, you will have a choice of wonderful riding and restaurants, with the very impressive fortress high on the ridge above. The cycling is relatively flat through vineyards of mostly Cabernet Franc, the local red wine. You can also leave the river and pedal up adjacent hillsides.
A special ride is from the Loire river up to Sancerre, with views of the vineyards and valleys below and excellent restaurants and an exceptional white wine to choose from. The pace of cycling will again reward you at least twice, as you get a real impression of these diverse terroirs and as you develop the appetite for evening appreciation of the vineyards that you have ridden through. The Loire is, of course, a concentration of magnificent chateaus that can be linked by bicycle. The choices are extensive, so consider our suggestions for 7 Historic Chateaus In The Loire Valley Where You Can Spend The Night.
Pro Tip: The full cycle route of the Loire valley is well worth doing for those who have the time.
3. La Côte Vermeille (The Vermilion Coast)
This is a pocket, a golden triangle of a small collection of towns, tucked against Catalonian Spain, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the steeply rising Pyrenees mountains. This region deserves more depth of description than the previous regions as it is an area less known to travelers outside of France. The small towns of Argelès Sur Mer, Collioure, Port-Vendres, Banyuls-sur-Mer, and Cerbère are a string of pearls in inlets separated by significant hillsides at the end of the French coastline before the Spanish border. Perpignan is the biggest town to the North; Barcelona is not far to the southwest.
From each of these towns rise beautiful mountainsides covered in vineyards providing excellent and challenging cycling and walking opportunities. From these old vineyards grow a wonderful and distinctive mixture of reds, whites, rosés, and special naturally sweet wines (Vins Doux Naturels, VDN), not unlike a good Port. The Languedoc-Roussillon wine area stretches from Nimes, in the southern center of France, to the Spanish border. It is a complex patchwork of terroir, grape varieties, and wine quality. Many wine connoisseurs would consider it as one of the best possible wine price-to-quality bargains in France.
La Côte Vermeille is a part of Rousillon but is distinctly unusual with its seacoast and sun-soaked exposure on steep mountainsides of brown schist. This is a special pocket of variety unlike any other in France. It is also interesting in its cultural and linguistic diversity. Here we get the blend of French and Spanish, with Occitan and Catalan as possible local languages. The grapes used in the winemaking reflect this variety as well with black, gray, and white Grenache as well as Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, and a total potential of 27 grape varieties, many of them local and on plants old enough to burrow deeply into this rocky soil in search of the distinctive flavors. Summer cycling here must be done early in the day. These southeast-facing, steep mountainsides get very hot.
A 7 to 8 a.m. departure with an 11 to 12 o’clock finish provides a good day of riding on these mountainsides and allows time for a shower, snack, and siesta before a swim, beach time, and possible snorkeling and diving, all leading up to seaside supper. The riding along the coastline is excellent, with steep, significant climbing and enjoyable winding descents between each village. The roads into the mountains are steep, narrow, and rarely have guard rails. One could easily get vertigo standing on the edge of the road. They seem to be designed to discourage all but the most intrepid from driving them. They can be wonderful for cyclists, but make sure that you have gear ratios for climbing and plenty of water. This is the first rise of the Pyrenees mountains.
Further inland it will get increasingly rugged. From here to the Atlantic, this mountain spine is some of the most challenging riding in Le Tour de France. Following the activities of the day, nothing could be better than settling by the seaside for a much-deserved dinner.
With the sea at your feet, the best meals may include an assortment of seafood. A plate of shrimp with local fresh vegetables and a cool bottle of Collioure white wine is a wonderful end to an active day. With a taste for Spain and the fresh seafood, an excellent and very complete meal is the paella, maybe with a cool rosé. For those with a more robust appetite, the vineyards leading to wooded mountains above, and centuries of Mediterranean and Catalan culture of cuisine, also provide delicious possibilities of wild game, pork, local beef varieties, lamb, a wide variety of sausage, and delicious possibilities with snails. A deeply structured red wine with perhaps a blend of Grenache Noir, Carignan, and Mourvedre from the terraced mountainsides that you rode through that day can complete a circle of appreciation of terroir and wine structure.
This is an area with depth and variety of culture and language, on the seaside with mountains rising above. It has been the inspiration for a variety of French artists, and Collioure is known to be the source of the Fauvism school of art. It is truly a region that expands sustenance of the spirit and the body to the point of inspiration. Following your day of joyful effort, slowly rolling or walking through these wonderful terroirs, cap off your day, and send yourself off to a restful sleep with a glass of the naturally sweet red wines.
Pro Tip: For an excellent meal in a restaurant on the edge of the sea, your feet nearly in the water, the Poisson Rouge, just southwest along the seashore in Port Vendre, is well worth a visit.