Wine Review: 2013 Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem

14 05 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Find this.

Find this.

I have been drinking this particular wine for four vintages now, seeking it out as soon as the new annual offering hit the shelves. It’s one of my favourite widely available wines, and I still have fond memories of the 2010 release, which I purchased repeatedly and brought over to many a dinner.  Well, this 2013 is even better, the best Bila-Haut yet, and has the chance to be something special.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  Bila-Haut is the Roussillon-based domaine of Michel Chapoutier, renowned winemaker of France’s Rhone valley (and one of the only producers to put braille on all of his labels).  Chapoutier is a legend in the Rhone, where his wines range from solid value examples of key regions to the absolute pinnacle that the valley has to offer, but it was only relatively recently, in 1999, that he expanded his empire to the very southern tip of France and acquired this estate in Roussillon.  More specifically, Bila-Haut is in a designated quality subregion of Roussillon that bears the longest appellation name I have ever seen:  Cotes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France.  Add “Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem” to the front of that and you get a very awkward wine label — and a lot of braille.

FullSizeRende1r“Occultum Lapidem” is Latin for “hidden gem” or “hidden stone” and apparently refers to the Bila-Haut estate’s oldest vineyards, where vines exceed 50 years of age and produce concentrated, powerful grapes.  As far as I can tell, the words are part of an expression by Christian Rosenkreuz, an alchemist who founded the mysterious philosophical secret society the Rosicrucian Order in the 13th or 14th century:  VITRIOL, or Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, meaning “Visit the Interior Parts of the Earth; by Rectification Thou Shalt Find the Hidden Stone”.  Rosenkreuz means “rose cross”, which was a symbol of the Order; the rose cross looks quite a bit like the “T” in “Bila-Haut” on this label.  Once you get past the Da Vinci Code of it all (only partly kidding – the Knights Templar are actually involved in this somehow too) and apply VITRIOL to the pursuit of fine wine, you can see why Chapoutier may have gone this way with the name.  Great wine is made in the Interior Parts of the Earth, as they say.

The 2013 Occultum Lapidem is 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 10% Carignan and goes through a very lengthy (4 week plus) maceration process, where the crushed grape juice sits in contact with the skins pre-fermentation.  It is matured partly in larger oak vats and partly in cement tanks to avoid excessive oak flavour transference.  The Bila-Haut website awesomely describes the colour of the wine as a “great dark garnet-red”, but to me it seemed a much more vivid brilliant purple-ruby (which I realize conflicts with the formal depiction in almost every way), bright and pure and slightly translucent.  However, it was the nose that made the wine for me, a remarkable combination of blackcurrant and chocolate covered cherries, burnt matches and paraffin, leather, sweat and bacon fat, with traces of topsoil and savoury spice thrown in.  It was basically everything that grounds my love of Syrah-based wine in a single glass, one which I didn’t even have to taste to enjoy.

Cork Rating:  6/10 (The appellation name can barely fit on the cork!)

Cork Rating: 6/10 (The appellation name can barely fit on the cork!)

But taste I did, which allowed me to revel in the substantial depth of flavour that this bottle had to offer.  The Occultum was dark but not heavy, deep but not ponderous, and immediately great but with the ingredients and substance to age for a decade:  disarmingly soft yet substantial tannin and seamlessly integrated acid.  I got a lot of black on the palate — blackberry, asphalt, black pepper, earth, even ink — which I thought would flourish and develop even further with another year or so in the bottle.  I enjoyed it more slightly cooler (after 15-20 minutes or so in the fridge), but Grenache’s candied red fruit notes definitely shone through more as the wine warmed up.

This is one of the never-miss value wines of our time, and if it was from a top region in Chapoutier’s home turf in the Rhone Valley instead of from the Roussillon it would cost twice as much, and it would still be worth it.  It should satisfy New and Old World wine lovers alike and works both as a weeknight warrior wine and as a centrepiece to a fancy Saturday meal.  Track it down and then thank me later!

92 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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