Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (translated by Anne Trager) (Le French Book, 2012) The Winemaker Detective Series (titled Mission à Haut-Brion in the series rather more provocatively titled Le sang de la vigne or The Blood of the Vine, in France). There are twenty-one books in the series which are “detective” novels, each one focusing on a crime in a different leading French vineyard and its appellation d’origine contrôlée. Under the same title, Le sang de la vigne, the books have also been a successful series on French television, so far running eight ninety-minute episodes. So here we go with the first run out in English for Benjamin Cooker, his wife Elisabeth, and Bacchus, their Irish setter. He’s the ultimate wine guru and winemaker who bottles from his own Bordeaux estate in Grangebelle on the banks of the Gironde, and writes the definitive guide to what’s drinkable in the wine world. Whether it’s a grand cru estate or a new blender, everyone waits in trepidation to see what his judgment of their latest efforts will be. His new assistant is Virgile Lanssien from Bergerac who, on his first day, goes with Benjamin to the Chateau Les Moniales Haut-Brion where an outbreak of Brettanomyces is suspected: a yeast that can change the taste and bouquet of a serious wine for the worst.
For a leading wine, this is a catastrophe unless the infection is nipped in the proverbial bud. Fortunately Cooker acts as a consultant and can call on top-class chemists and other experts, all of whom act with absolute discretion. It would be immensely damaging to the reputation of any major label if even a hint of scandal should emerge. The question, once the initial diagnosis is confirmed, is how the barrels should have become infected. It most commonly occurs in cellars which fail to observe even the most basic of hygiene standards. This cellar is run to the highest standards of care. It’s inconceivable that this could be accidental. The question, therefore, is who would have a motive to contaminate such high-profile wine and how was it done. For obvious reasons, the cellar has a good security system and only two individuals have keys and the access code.
Running in parallel is the provenance of an overmantle, a painting most often hung over a fireplace. To his surprise, Cooker discovers that there’s another very similar painting. When he investigates, he finds both paintings were almost certainly by the same artist and might have been a pair. In turn this leads to an ageing, alcoholic historian who rambles drunkenly through much of the history of the area and, in the final moments before falling into unconsciousness, volunteers the information that the two paintings were part of a triptych. From this brief introduction you will notice the welcome omission. This is a mystery without a murder! Too often writers of mysteries think they must kill off several people in order to entertain their readers.
This is a novella length but manages to cram in a mass of fascinating detail about winemaking and the history of the Bordeaux region where we discover much intrigue and skullduggery of different degrees of viciousness. It seems little has changed over the centuries. Treachery in Bordeaux should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, and has an interest in wine and its place in French culture.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.