When I started reading Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police, I had no expectations other than a mystery set in France. I didn’t expect it would introduce me to an excellent wine region that is criminally underappreciated by the word at large; Bergerac. The books regular references to Bergerac Sec drove me to hunt down examples. I quickly realized that Bergerac produced excellent quality Bordeaux style wines at a bargain price.
Bergerac has a long wine history, dating back to the Romans. The region is located just east of St. Émilion. That puts it within the Aquitaine. The area enjoyed privileged trading with England during the reign of Henry II who was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1254, Henry III granted special privileges to Bergerac to ship to Bordeaux & then to England without additional taxes. The region primarily adopted the same grape plantings & styles as Bordeaux. For centuries Bergerac’s fortunes rose & fell with Bordeaux. The area was considered a part of Bordeaux & its wine were labeled as such.
That all changed with the development of the AOC system in France. In 1936 the AOC system was set up & it was determined that Bergerac AOC would be separate from Bordeaux & would generally follow the geographic area of the Dordogne Département. Cut loose from the association with Bordeaux, it has taken a long time for Bergerac to emerge in its own light. There are now 13 AOC regions within the main AOC. They cover a range of styles from dry reds, to sweet reds, to rose’, to dry whites, to unctuous sweet whites. There are over 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) planted to grapes. They even have a left & right bank with different styles, kind of like Bordeaux. Vineyards on the left bank are planted on the hillside & have limestone soils. Vineyards on the right bank are often terraced with a blend of stony, sandy, & alluvial soils. The river effect moderates the temperatures. Some prominent sub-appellations of Bergerac include Monbazillac, Pécharmant, & Montravel.
Monbazillac AOC is famous for dessert wines. They are made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, & Muscadelle grapes that have been infected by botrytis (more Muscadelle than in Sauternes). The grapes are handpicked in tries. It is said that “Noble rot” was discovered by Benedictine monks who set up a priory in Bergerac in 1080 and began producing wine (I suspect that wine was made using infected grapes centuries earlier, although not necessarily on purpose). Monbazillac may not be as long lived as the greatest Sauternes, but they are still incredible wines. The best can last for decades. Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure’s Sémillon & Muscadelle version is terrific. Rosette AOC & Saussignac AOC also make white dessert wine.
Pécharmant AOC has outstanding potential for red wine. The vineyards sit on a plateau with a combination of chalk & gravel above an iron/clay layer called “Tran.” These wines have deep flavors & the potential to compete with 3rd – 5th growth Bordeaux at a bargain price. Domaine Haut-Pécharmant is a solid producer.
Montravel Rouge is a somewhat new concept. The area was known for its white wines for years, but now has a dedicated AOC for red wines. One thing that makes it unusual is that the AOC status is determined after bottling. The wine must pass a taste panel for quality & the ability to age. Wines must be at least 50% Merlot, although many are closer to 90% Merlot with some Cabernet Franc, like Pomerol. Parts of Montravel AOC directly adjoin St. Émilion. The soils are virtually the same. If you were walking in the region, you wouldn’t really notice a difference in the landscape. If you tried a glass, you might not taste much difference either. The prices & availability would definitely be different. Not a lot of these wines are exported, but when you find them, they can be a bargain. The Guide-Hachette de Vines compared Montravel Rouge to Pomerol & said “Two to three times less expensive than its neighbor and brother from Bordeaux for a wine that is almost identical.”
Dry white wine in Bergerac can be excellent as well. The Bergerac Sec I discovered from the Walker novels tends to be a crisp, grassy, & thirst quenching Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon blend, often with a touch of Muscadelle. White wine production is probably more important to the economy than red. Other white grapes are used including Ugni Blanc, & Chenin Blanc, although their use is decreasing.
Bergerac finally seems poised to emerge from the shadow of Bordeaux. There is a push to go outside the traditional export channels. Currently, only about 15% of Bergerac AOC wine is exported. Most of that goes to England, Belgium, Germany, & the Netherlands. Bergerac Wine Holdings is a publicly traded company based in Bergerac. They have purchased several properties including Chateau Riffaud & Chateau Belingard. They have made an effort to expand into Asia & the United States. They even have a South Korean educated director of Asian Business Development, Marc Amram, who is based in Shanghai. That’s an important step for a Bergerac company into the broader market. The newer red appellations are winning awards & gaining prestige for the region. Magazines like Wine Enthusiast are reviewing the wines more frequently. Even a recent setback may turn out to have a silver lining. In April of 2017, there was severe frost damage. Most of the coverage was of Bordeaux, but parts of Bergerac also had extensive damage. The only good news is that Bordeaux may be in shorter supply for the 2017 vintage & that may be an opportunity for Bergerac to fill some empty spots on shelves worldwide. Once more people have the opportunity to sample Bergerac wines, they may find that they want to continue drinking them. I know that’s what happened to me once I tried my first Bergerac Sec on the recommendation of the fictional Bruno, Chief of Police.
PS: I highly recommend the Bruno series! They tend to have moments of intense violence or action, but the true joy in the books is in the quiet moments where a meal is prepared and shared. I love the mysteries, but I would read a new Bruno story that was just an uneventful month in Bruno’s life. It’s that enjoyable. Check out Martin Walker’s website. Not only will you learn more about the books, you can find everything you need to plan a trip to Perigord to try Bergerac wines in their native home. You also can find excellent recipes for the kind of food served in the books.