Dunne on Wine

A French wine mystery: Where's the Bergerac?

Label, Belingard 2014 Reserve Monbazillac
Label, Belingard 2014 Reserve Monbazillac Mike Dunne

If only Benoit Courreges were in Sacramento. Surely, he'd solve the case of the missing wine.

The wine is Bergerac, an appellation in the Périgord region of southwest France, just east of Bordeaux. Of all the world's wine regions represented on the shelves of wine shops and grocery stores in and about Sacramento, a bottle of Bergerac rarely is found. That's the mystery awaiting Benoit Courreges, better known as Bruno, chief of police of St. Denis, a village near the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere rivers in Périgord, "the gastronomic and sporting heartland of France," he is fond of reminding anyone within earshot.

Before we get further into this riddle of the missing Bergerac, a confession: Bruno is fiction, as is St. Denis, but Bergerac is real. Bruno and St. Denis are convincing inventions of Martin Walker, a journalist turned novelist who has published 10 congenial mysteries involving the cop and the village over the past decade. His latest, "A Taste for Vengeance" (Penguin Random House, 352 pages, $23), is being released next week, just in time for book-on-the-beach season.

A safe prediction: The book will be much easier to get your hands on than a bottle of Bergerac, even though the region's wines get highlighted fondly in each installment of Walker's series. Bruno is especially keen on Cuvee Grand Millesimes by Chateau de Tiregand, a genuine estate in the sub-appellation Pecharmant just east of the city of Bergerac.

A blend largely of merlot with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec, Cuvee Grand Millesimes are consumed almost entirely in France, with just a few cases available in Chicago, its only import destination in the United States, says chateau principal Francoise-Xavier de Saint-Exupery in an exchange of emails.

In composition and style, the red wines of Bergerac aren't far removed from the more celebrated and popular wines of Bordeaux, but they almost invariably are more modestly priced, which helps explain why they so readily are consumed in France. The current release of Cuvee Grand Millesimes, the 2014, sells at the chateau for 21 euros, about $25 in U.S. currency. In Chicago, Cuvee Grand Millesimes has been selling for around $35, still a bargain compared with Bordeaux's better-known estates.

Indeed, Walker and Bruno both brood about Bergerac wines becoming more popular and more dear.

"The wines of Bergerac, (Bruno) believed, were one of France's better-kept secrets. While half of him looked forward to the day when they took their place alongside the great vintages of Bordeaux, he also feared that he'd be less and less able to afford them," writes Walker in "The Resistance Man."

Despite the popularity of the Bruno series, that isn't likely to happen soon. Sales of the Bruno books aren't translating into demand for Bergerac wines, at least not yet, say importers and merchants. For decades, Bordeaux has over-shadowed Bergerac for several cultural, economic and political reasons. Yet, the charm with which Walker draws Bruno and St. Denis may help change that history.

Bruno is a highly capable, likeable and romantic character. He grew up an orphan, joined the French Army, was wounded in Bosnia, and settled in St. Denis to police the hamlet, restore a former shepherd's cottage for his home and coach the rugby team and teach tennis when he isn't gardening, hunting or doing his best to resolve crimes without arresting anyone.

"He could imagine what young magistrates might think of him, an ex-soldier who hunted and drank and who tried never to arrest anyone and cared little for the subtleties of modern law enforcement with its counseling and political correctness," writes Walker in "The Crowded Grave." Nevertheless, Bruno is fair, patient and effective as he investigates crimes involving such topical themes as immigration, terrorism and wealthy California vintners who want to buy the village and capitalize on its potential for tourism.

St. Denis itself is a composite of several small towns in the Périgord, where Walker lives when he isn't at his other home in Washington, D.C. St. Denis is small, idyllic and historic, with five boulangeries, a farmers market, a railroad station, a well-stocked wine shop and a theme park where Joan of Arc is burned at the stake twice a day, an image more gruesome than most of the crimes Bruno investigates.

Against this backdrop, Bruno and his regular cast of neighbors – the mayor, a newspaper reporter, the owner of a local café, among several others – live a largely rhythmic and romantic life, larded with one joyous occasion after another, that calls for regional foods and wines. (Walker and his wife have published a Bruno cookbook based on the region's foods, but it is in German and apparently only available in Germany.)

As rare as wines of Bergerac may be hereabouts, Sacramentans occasionally can find a bottle to give them a clue as to why Bruno relishes them so much. The Whole Foods market along Arden Way at Eastern Avenue, for one, has stocked various vintages of the Tour des Gendres Cuvee des Conti Bergerac Sec ($17), an aromatic, juicy and fleshy dry white wine made from the grapes semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle.

Bruno and his pals are especially keen on Bergerac sec with trout, smoked salmon, chilled summer soups and crayfish atop a broth of celery, fennel, onions and carrots. Total Wine along Arden Way also carries a dry, steely and sprightly Bergerac sec, the 2016 Chateau Belingard ($11).

For an introductory red from Bergerac, Total Wine also stocks the Chateau Belingard 2015 Rouge ($11), a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. It isn't the most charming or complex of Bergerac reds I've tasted, but it does gradually yield the fragrance, spry build and cherry fruit Bergerac customarily provides.

In the Chief Bruno series, a Bergerac red almost always is at hand when the table is set with roast lamb. No style of Bergerac wine may elicit more mention in the Bruno books than monbazillac, an intensely sweet white wine that in a blind tasting well could be mistaken for revered Sauternes. Monbazillac can be made from the grape varieties semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle, and like Sauternes owes its richness to botrytis, the "noble rot" that attacks and dehydrates grapes, concentrating their sugar.

In the series, monbazillac often plays the role traditionally assigned Sauternes – as a companion to such equally flavorful dishes as tarte tatin, fresh strawberries and most especially pate de foie gras studded with truffles.

In Sacramento, monbazillac can be found in a couple of places. Corti Brothers stocks the honeyed, floral and silken Chateau Belingard 2012 Monbazillac ($11 for a 375-mililitter bottle), while Total Wine carries the equally perfumey and seductively sweet Chateau Belingard 2014 Reserve Monbazillac ($12.50 per 375-mililitter bottle), layered with suggestions of lemon, peach and fig.

As if the books alone weren't enough to convince observers of Bruno's fondness for the wines of Bergerac, Walker has started to release an inexpensive "Bruno" wine made in the region. It's available only in Europe, however. In a Facebook post, he explains why: "For a small winemaker the bureaucracy involved in exporting to the USA is daunting and expensive. Every state has its own different rules and most demand that you send them bottles for 'testing.'"

Nevertheless, with the diversity, quality and value that Bergerac offers, its wines should be much more in demand here than they are. Bruno, chief of police, no doubt will solve that when he arrives in a vehicle with more power to affect tastes than books seem to have.

I'm thinking of a Netflix series based on Bruno. Granted, I haven't heard of one in the works, so in the meantime cajole your favorite wine merchant to stock more Bergerac.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

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