The Winemaker Detective’s Guide to French Wine Country
Anne Trager, translator and founder of the publishing house Le French Book, pulled together a guide to some top spots to visit and tipple in France from the gourmet sleuth Winemaker Detective series. As authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen say, “each book is a homage to a wine and a wine region,” and the rich details take readers there with or without a plane ticket.
“The other side was a foreign land…” I love this line from the cozy mystery Treachery in Bordeaux. The story is set in France’s famous wine region, a foreign land for many readers, but here, we are in the protagonist’s point of view. Bordeaux is not foreign to him; he grew up there. He is Benjamin Cooker, wine expert and author of the famed Cooker Guide, who discovers throughout the Winemaker Detective series how money, deceit, death, inheritance, and jealousy—all very present in the wine industry—lead to crimes, which he then solves with his assistant and sidekick Virgile.
We, as readers, get to enjoy much more than just the mystery solving. Each novel is like a tasting and travel guide. Here are some tips I’ve picked up from reading the series.
Above, Cooker is describing a citadel called Blaye, located across the Gironde estuary from Bordeaux,
It is worth taking the ferry across to the right bank of the Gironde, as Benjamin does, parking in the downtown lot, going through the king’s gate, and taking the bridge to the ramparts. I would recommend this excursion in addition to an outing to Pessac-Léognan, where you can actually visit Château Haut-Brion if you make an appointment first.
In this particular book, readers also explore the city of Bordeaux, learning how it encroached on vineyards, how it has developed to what it is today, while in another book in the series, Deadly Tasting, Cooker and Virgile spend time the vineyards around Pétrus. I would drive out to Pomerol just as the Winemaker Detective did and give into the same “irrepressible desire to smell the vines that bore the fruit of a highly regarded wine,” where a stony mix of clay and iron in the subsoil gives the wines a “metallic but fatty flavor. Some people claim it tastes a bit like truffles.” Is your mouth watering too?
In the series, Cooker travels. In Grand Cru Heist, he gets carjacked in Paris and retreats to the Loire Valley to recuperate. I suppose a Vouvray cure could help in just about any circumstance. In his words: “ [The Loire Valley] was known as France’s garden, and the vineyards grew in the shadow of stone lacework castles.” Our translation editor, Amy, and I have followed his footsteps to the letter, and recommend two additions to any tour of Loire Valley king’s castles: Stay at the Domaine de la Tortinière, just like Cooker, and visit La Taille aux Loups for a wine tasting.
Nightmare in Burgundy begins with a memorable scene in which Cooker is knighted into a very real brotherhood, the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. I recommend reading about the whole meal while visiting the Château du Clos du Vougeot. Then take in Beaune and the Cîteaux Abbey.
In Cognac Conspiracies, we go to Charente, to the town of Jarnac, “haut lieu of cognac production since the eighteen hundreds and birthplace of former French President François Mitterand.” In Mayhem in Margaux, we join Cooker and his family in the holiday vacation spot of Cap Ferret, where “They gathered shrimp, snails, and oysters and ate them with garlic butter and a glass of wine as the waning light of the afternoon sun shimmered through the upper branches of the pine trees.”
Each book is an excursion in itself, and as they are written by French writers, we get another perspective on the actual places, and the “other side” becomes a little less of a foreign land.
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