Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains and abutting the Spanish border to the south and west lies a region in the Côtes du Roussillon that shares many similarities with its Spanish neighbors that share in the Catalunian heritage found here in what is often referred to as Northern Catalonia. This region was once Spanish territory, ceded to France in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. The region remains very much influenced by it’s Catalan roots, and it has also become a bit of a darling to French winemakers moving west, to the wilder, less restricted Roussillon where they have brought with them a craft honed in the Rhône Valley. But the Roussillon is not merely a blank slate for newcomers to the region. It has a long history of winemaking sweet fortified wines have developed a world wide reputation from the region, but winemaking has a long history here dating to pre-Roman times.
The modern take on Roussillon is the most exciting. Known names are producing vibrant and serious wines in a region that has been known for its simplicity and value. Michel Chapoutier was a rock star long before he decided to dabble in the Roussillon, but it was the stony soils above the Agly River valley that drew him here. The Bila Haut site is a bit of a mix of disparate soil types all within the estate. The rocky soils include schist, gneiss and clay, and the diversity of soil types within the estate allow for wines of complexity and unique character to be blended to create the most compelling wine possible.
The wines from Chapoutier, and other producers like Domaine Gauby make a case for the Côtes du Roussillon as a world class terroir, with authenticity, complexity and character, as well as some very well priced wines.
2016 Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon Blanc, Roussillon, France $10
A blend of white grapes from the Roussillon which includes Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeau. The wine is aromatically fairly subdued unlike much of the Southern Rhône white blends that are often round and phenolic. This wine is instead citrus and mineral driven with perhaps a touch of flinty aromatics. The palate is light, fresh and lively. Flavors are focused on minerality and a touch of salinity accompanied by key lime, grapefruit and a rounded peach flesh character.
2016 Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon Rouge, Roussillon, France $12
The classic blend from this part of southern France, Syrah, Grenache and Carignan with a dusty signature aroma of black cherries, garrigue, a hint of floral components and blue fruits. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and as such sports a palate that offers up dried fig, chalky minerality, and montmorency cherry. There’s a rustic hue to the wine, but it shows a certain elegance and command of the material that is a nod to the winemaking chops of Chapoutier.
2014 Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, Roussillon, France $24
A step above the Côtes du Roussillon is the Côtes du Roussillon Villages and the Occultum Lapidem. Occultum Lapidem is derived from a broader alchemist phrase but in Latin translates to “hidden stone” perhaps an homage on the part of Chapoutier to the geological diversity of the region and its ability to drive real wines of character. The production in concrete tanks brings out the mineral driven nature of the this wine, the aromas of garrigue abound, mingling with violet and dusty red fruit. The palate offers a hint of intrigue, smoky, flinty and dollops of dark black fruit bring it home.