There are a couple of reasons I like to drink a Bila-Haut during the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s a wine from the Roussillon, a place my wife, daughter, and I frequented almost every Thanksgiving in–during our years in Europe and where I developed a taste for the wines from this southwesternmost corner of France. And my taste for this particular wine grew after Michel Chapoutier took over those vineyards a couple decades ago.
The history of our little beachside vacation home started with a reference to the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees when the Spanish ceded that rugged territory to France to assure peace between the ambitions of Louis XIV and the cash-poor Philip IV. A recent review of the “Wines of the Roussillon” by France Today made the point that the high quality of the wines produced on the northeast slopes of the Pyrenees are at last giving France its due from a treaty the Spanish thought had bilked the Sun King.
Sometime in the late 1970s, shortly after getting our place in the Roussillon, I met Michel Chapoutier in the kitchen of the Hostellerie de l’Ange, then a one-Michelin-star restaurant in Alsace, a few miles north of Strasbourg. He was scouting for vineyards in the Rhine Valley. Having just assumed leadership of his family’s long-standing wine firm in the Rhone Valley, young Michel was looking far ahead. On each of several visits to his family estate in Tain, I learned of his interest in the Catalan vineyards of the Pyrenees-Orientales. When I told him of our place near Perpignan, he said that once he found his spot in Roussillon, I should come see him.
He didn’t find that spot until after we had moved back to Indiana, so I have not yet had a chance to go to Bila-Haut, but Bila-Haut has come to me. The wine brings all the flavors I learned to love in the region but refines them to the quality one expects from a Chapoutier Rhone wine. Michel has made sure that these 70-year-old Grenache, Carignan, and Syrah vines are adequately stressed by the arid climate, rocky terrain, and violent winds to put forth their best effort, and with craftsman’s skill blends them into wines that set a standard for the entire region.
When we started going to the Roussillon, the wines were pleasant but undistinguished, drunk locally or sold in bulk for blending elsewhere. I have happy memories of carrying my empty liter-bottles to the village co-operative for filling from a barrel. That co-operative is gone, and today some of these wines attract high scores from Robert Parker. The wines still have charm and character, but they are today more complex, and just as important, are great value. I’m finding Bila-Haut at about $15 per bottle. There are pleasant white and rose wines from the Roussillon, but the reds are the ones headed for upscale retail shelves.
As the recent review pointed out, the grandees in Madrid miscalculated badly when they thought they had dumped some useless acreage on their hostile neighbors over the mountains.