In an amazing feat of self-deception, I got through my more or less wine-less pregnancy by telling myself I’d be back in full force once the boys were born. Well, nursing means I’m not doing much drinking these days. (Although I am doing a lot of eating. Good Lord, breastfeeding twins works up an appetite.) And it’s not like I have time for much leisurely wine drinking or tasting or blogging these days. Or much leisurely anything, for that matter.
However. When I got an invitation to meet Michel Chapoutier and taste his Bila-Haut wines two weeks ago, I simply couldn’t pass it up. I’m not big into wine “celebrities,” but Chapoutier is someone I’ve always wanted to meet. One, because I like his wines. And two, because he’s an intriguing character. He’s crazy ambitious — outside of his native Rhône Valley, the guy has business interests in Australia, Portugal, and China, just to name a few, plus he’s investigating opportunities in England. Chapoutier says he’s looking for opportunities there to create a lower alcohol white wine, somewhat surprising for a guy who’s made his name on robust reds from warmer climes. Plus, the guy is not afraid to speak his mind. (Check out this interview, for example.) Good wines, and a guy who makes for good copy — how could I pass it up?
The wines, which hail from Chapoutier’s holdings in Rousillon did not disappoint. And neither did the man himself. Here are some highlights of the afternoon’s tasting. (The reds are a blend of Syrah, Grenache and
Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rouge, Côtes de Roussillon Villages 2009, $13. Syrah/Grenache/Carignan. This is the entry level wine, and a darn good one. I’ve had it and written about it before. I like hearing Chapoutier talk about using Carignan in the blend as a condiment — too much of this much-maligned variety common to France’s south introduces an overwhelming vegetal/animal/smoky element to the wine, which Chapoutier is against. He’s admittedly not a big fan of the grape and compared its character to the smoky finish on bourbon. This was kind of a revelation for me; I’m similarly ambivalent about Carignan and bourbon, and now I see that they both have a similar taste profile I can do without.
Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Blanc Côtes de Roussillon 2009, $13. A mix of Macabeu, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris, it’s a nice enough, well-made wine, with a refreshing hint of bitterness on the finish that seems almost Italian, but it didn’t do much for me. It’s probably a psychological block on my part as much as anything — the idea of white wines from the Rousillon, the sunniest spot in France and better known for its big reds and dessert wines, is a tough for me to get my head around.
My favorite was the Domaine de Bila-Haut L’Esquerda 2008. (You can read my review here.) Syrah/Grenache/Carignan, with a smaller percentage of Carignan than the straight up Bila-Haut Rouge. It’s a lot of wine for $18–really a terrific value. Chapoutier cites the smell of “summer rain on hot stone” as a characteristic of his Bila-Haut wines, and that aroma is in full effect here. (If that scent isn’t evocative for you, think of the smell of wet slate paving stones around a swimming pool on a hot day and you get the idea.)
Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France 2008, $25. Syrah/Grenache/Carignan. Again, another mental block on my part with this wine. To me it smelled exactly — and I mean exactly — like those Mon Chéri chocolate-covered cherries. Beyond that, I wasn’t getting much and I’m guessing it will take a bit of time for this wine to evolve.
Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Visitere Interiore Terrae Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France 2008, $125. Grenache/Syrah. I’m not a very musical person, but sometimes I think about wines in terms of treble and bass. Champagne or Riesling, for example, are wines with a lot of treble, for lack of a better way of putting it. Deep, mellow and elegant, this is a wine with a lot of bass. I enjoyed it a lot, but the price tag seems a bit on the steep side — time will tell if it lives up to it.
Chapoutier held forth, entertainingly, on everything from the history of the AOC system, to his love of granite soils, to his tête de veau recipe. (He wasn’t giving any too many specifics, but I made him promise to whip some up for me if I ever pay him a visit.)
Here are some of my favorites:
On the overintellectualization of wine: “one does not need to be a gynecologist to make love to a woman.”
On the role of obvious fruit in a wine: “fruit is to wine what disco is to music.”
“You know why Chave [iconic Rhône winemaker Gérard Chave, that is] is a great winemaker? Because he is a great cook!”
After tasting his Bila-Haut white: “C’est bien ça..the only problem? It is too inexpensive.”