Foul Play in Vouvray is now available. In another fun wine-infused mystery with a French flair, authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen skillfully combine French wine, gourmet meals, and mystery in Vouvray, one of the most diverse wine regions in the world. To give you a feel for the scenery, scents, and sounds of France conveyed in this translation, I wanted to share some excerpts that highlight the wine region.
Wine tasting and mystery
The winemaker was taking in the earthy smells when François emerged with a loaf of bread and a jar of rillettes.
“You spoil us, François.” Benjamin said, already salivating. “Virgile, rillettes were a Pinon family specialty at one time. Now he buys a whole hog and brings in the local charcutier to have the rillettes made to his specification. They’re wonderful. The store-bought variety is much too fatty.”
Having set out the food, François went into the vinification cellar and returned with a wire basket containing six bottles.
The unusual career path of this solid and demanding man, with a serious face softened by a beard had impressed Benjamin so much, he had devoted an entire page to him in the first edition of his Cooker Guide. François, the descendent of several generations of Touraine farmers and vintners, had abandoned rural life to attend the prestigious École Normale. After a brief stint as a professor, he continued his studies and became a child psychologist. For a time, he worked beside the French pediatrician and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto. When his parents retired, however, the call of his native land proved irresistible. He left Paris and took up the torch. The city dweller found he had forgotten nothing about working the land, and he still had the passion for it. François gradually abandoned mixed farming, and the estate had since become emblematic of the Vouvray appellation.
François appeared to be oblivious to the film crew as he explained his work. Benjamin listened attentively, even though he was versed in the methods: the pruning, scraping, sucker removal, harvesting, plowing, spraying, splicing, trimming, sorting, clarifying, racking, filtering, and other day-to-day and often exhausting routines of this conscientious winemaker. Now and then Benjamin broke in with a technical question, but he was eager to taste the wines. François obliged by filling their stem glasses.
“As you know, we had that disastrous hail storm in 2012 and very small yields in 2013, but we recovered nicely,” François said. “What I’m pouring now is the first Les Déronnières that I bottled.”
Benjamin studied the color and sniffed. Finally, he chewed, taking out his notebook a few minutes later, unscrewing the cap of his fountain pen, and making his notations in quick, tight writing.
“2014 Vouvray Déronnières: Cuvée grown on hilltop above Pinon cave. 18 grams per liter residual sugar, 12.4 percent alcohol and strong acidity. Similar to demi-sec, but with fantastic minerality and balance. Subtle aromas of dried pear, lemon, and gravel. Minerality and saline on the palate, with white fruit, lemon, and herbal notes.”
He put his pen down and didn’t say anything. Finally, he looked at his host. “A simply stunning wine, François. Elegant and complex. It should age beautifully.”
François smiled and poured a second vintage. Once again, Benjamin studied, sniffed, chewed, and picked up his pen: “2014 Vouvray Silex Noir: From clay parcels over limestone with black flint. Unique mineral character. Nicely balanced, with 12.1 percent alcohol and 15 grams residual sugars. Complex aromas of citrus, floral, dried pear, and licorice. Concentrated palate of white fruits, minerals, and citrus. Delicious and likely to improve when aged a dozen years or longer.”
Benjamin turned to Virgile, eager to hear his thoughts.
“Bright and expressive,”Virgile said.“But at the same time, precise.”
The winemaker nodded.
“Now we’ll go back a few years,” François said, filling fresh glasses. “This is our Premiere Trie Vouvray, 2003, at its peak.”
Benjamin admired the lovely color and followed the ritual. “Golden robe with amber sheen,” he wrote. “Wisteria and pear and poached peach on the nose, with a touch of praline. Honeysuckle notes with no cloying sweetness. A refined wine.”
He jotted one more sentence before putting his notebook and fountain pen back in his pocket. “Would you mind sending samples to a journalist friend of mine?” he asked François.
Benjamin’s friend was familiar with this type of varietal, and he wanted her opinion. The winemaker wasn’t afraid to express his thoughts, but he was also receptive to the opinions of esteemed colleagues. When he needed to have his judgments confirmed or contradicted, he didn’t hesitate to consult with trusted wine experts whose tasting notes he found relevant.
François said he’d get the samples off right away, and Benjamin relaxed. The tasting session continued under the pale spring sunlight, and no one had any desire to leave. Before packing up, Liza asked Fabrice to film the inside of the vinification cellar, along with the limestone caverns.
An hour later, Benjamin, a little tipsy, reluctantly decided it was time to go. But he agreed to taste one more glass that François insisted on pouring. He admired the fine bubbles and the aroma of small dried fruit.
Grape leaves make poor shields
“It’s strange, boss—with all of the region’s fancy châteaus and showy history, they hide a lot of their vineyards, kind of like a secret lover.”
Benjamin chuckled. “There’s no secret. It’s all in the geography, son. Here in Vouvray country, the vineyard is often out of sight. But you feel its proximity. I think of it this way: behind the high cliffs pierced with troglodyte caves and beyond the slate roofs, you sense the presence of an army of vines standing guard in rows, ready to confront the assault of rain and biting sun.”
“So it’s not a lover but, instead, a military division. If you ask me, grape leaves make pretty poor shields.” Benjamin ignored Virgile’s smirk. His assistant still had a thing or two to learn, and Benjamin had much to impart. He launched into another lecture. “Let me fill you in. With two thousand hectares divided among seven communes, the Vouvray appellation is the true kingdom of chenin, one of the finest and most delicate grape varieties on earth. It can repay a grower a hundred times over if he knows how to take care of it.”
Benjamin slowed down to take a curve and then checked on Virgile. He was paying attention. “The Vouvray region lies just east of Tours. It enjoys a rather mild climate.And that’s a good thing, because it’s not necessarily easy to cultivate this type of vineyard.You must not underestimate the oceanic influence that warms the ground. Autumns are usually sunny, which encourages ripeness and noble rot. That said, the grape can be fickle.”
“So we’re back to the lover metaphor,” Virgile said, grinning.
Benjamin suppressed a scowl. “What I mean by fickle is that the sugar content can determine a year’s production. In cool years, production leans toward the drier varieties, including the sparkling Vouvrays. In warmer years, the sweeter Vouvrays tend to dominate.”
“To get back to our geography, the vineyards are often on high rises.”
“Absolutely—stony plateaus on limestone substrate that loom above the valleys. The white Turonian clay is covered with flinty clay, which gives dry wines their characteristic minerality. And then the calcareous clay gives the sweet wines their well-rounded nature.”
“Yes, boss. Turonian. Ninety-four to ninety million years ago, roughly counting. It was the second of six main divisions in the Upper Cretaceous Series.”
“I see you still remember something from your days at oenology school.”
The winemaker kept going, piling on figures while Virgile listened politely. The region produced about a hundred and fifteen thousand hectoliters of Vouvray every year, or fifteen million bottles. On average, fifty-five percent were sparkling, and forty-five percent were still. Dry Vouvray had nine grams of residual sugars per liter. Semi-dry had fifteen grams, while sweet and fortified liquors had fifty grams.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about Les Bournais, with its unique silty clay soil over limestone. This is the land of bubbly wines, very light and delicate. Over time, they develop candied fruit aromas with a touch of sweet floral, which enhances the freshness.”