This Is Not Just Another Winery: Haut-Bailly 1964-2018
BY NEAL MARTIN | APRIL 26, 2022
A winery is like a new-born baby. To outsiders, they all look the same. To their parents, they are unique and immeasurably loveable. I’ve visited countless wineries over my career, and after the first…I dunno…100-odd?...Well, they all start looking the same. There are only so many configurations of stainless-steel vats. A row of barrels is…a row of barrels. Then again, if I was in a château’s shoes, I would be proud and I would want to show off my new winery, too.
But every now and again, a new winery stops you in your tracks. That was the case with Haut-Bailly when I inspected their new facility. It was different. Its new architecture is stark and innovative, while its interior breath-taking, not in terms of throwing pots of money at it (even though a large pot of money was thrown at it) rather in respect to functionality. Like my previous article on Figeac, whose winery was constructed contemporaneously, this report coincides with a new chapter at Haut-Bailly. As well as detailing the new winery, I delve into the château’s history and the present-day modus operandi courtesy of an interview with Véronique Sanders, as well as a vertical of the last 20 vintages augmented by older bottles back to the early 1960s.
Alcide Bellot des Minières sporting a very Tolkienesque look.
The origin of Haut-Bailly has only really been uncovered in recent years (I recommend Jane Anson’s recent monograph for those wishing for in-depth history of the estate). Historian Hélène Brun-Pugninier discovered documents that confirm viticulture was practiced in this patch of Léognan as far back as 1392, albeit against the backdrop of a rural population devastated by the Black Plague and Hundred Years War. Brun-Pugninier found one manuscript describing the condition of vines in the lieu-dit of Pujau, where Haut-Bailly stands, dated in 1461. It refers to the land as a local high spot, hence the word “Haut” came to be included in its title. The land was owned by what seems to be a comparatively wealthy peasant Bourbon Johan family who sold part of their land to Basque wine merchant, Jehen de Goyaneche in 1540. This was the first of some 30 acquisitions that together form the genesis of Haut-Bailly. The diaspora of parcels coalesced into a “Bourdieu”, essentially a working vineyard. When the owners, now the de Haitze family, ran into financial difficulties, it was sold by public auction in 1630. The winning bidder was Firmin Le Bailly.
The Bankers (Part One)
Firmin and Nicolas Le Bailly were Parisian-based bankers, prefiguring the steady stream of financiers that acquired Bordeaux estates throughout the following centuries, most famously, the Rothschilds. At this time, much of the Médoc was marshland, and the wines of the Graves were most esteemed in crucial overseas markets such as England. Archives detail the sale of 1696 and 1697 vintages, one of the earliest mentions of specific vintage bottlings in Bordeaux. Le Bailly linked up with a trading partner, Nicolas de Leuvarde, and together they expanded the estate and established a reputation for its wine. When Le Bailly died in 1655, his widow Anne took the baton and by all accounts shared her husband’s business acumen, extant papers recording her chiding coopers for poor-quality barrels and overseeing the construction of a wooden-framed house. The estate passed through various hands including Christophe de Lafaurie who not only managed to avoid the guillotine, but went on to become mayor of Bordeaux in 1805.
On the left, Daniel Sanders and on the right, his son and successor, Jean Sanders.
The next chapter of Haut-Bailly is centred around what might be considered the godfather of the estate, Alcide Bellot des Minières, who has a fascinating background. Well-educated, Bellot des Minières pursued a career in international shipping, moving to the United States, where he helped establish transatlantic trade routes. On 20 April 1872, he purchased Haut-Bailly for 115,000 Francs, whereupon he set about reorganizing the vineyard and constructing the present-day château. Bellot des Minières was a viticultural expert, perhaps the Émile Peynaud of his day, earning the nom de plume, the ‘King of Winegrowers’. He instigated the draining and levelling of the land and paid meticulous attention to the soil that was rich in ‘faluns of Léognan’, a petrified sandstone distinguished with a high content of fossilized shellfish.
Bellot des Minières had one Achilles heel. Perhaps, due to a combination of success, erudition and hubris, he vehemently opposed the grafting of non-vinifera American rootstock onto European vitis vinifera to combat the phylloxera epidemic, going so far to describe the practice as “a foul abomination”.
“He was against American rootstock,” Véronique Sanders explains. “To him they were like ‘bastard vines’ and so he tried to avoid replacing them, using any alternative means possible.” Despite his recalcitrance, his stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable and thanks to his expertise and know-how, Haut-Bailly rapidly rose through the ranks and began achieving prices close to those of the First Growths. In 1878, his wine sold for 3,200 Francs per tonneau and that increased to 5,000 francs per tonneau by 1885.
Bellot des Minières died in November 1906 at Haut-Bailly. His friend, Frantz Malvezin continued his predecessor’s good work during his tenure between 1918 and 1923. That progress was all but undone in the 1930s that saw a succession of woeful vintages plus the global economic depression. This impacted many châteaux. Haut-Bailly was not spared. In 1937, some of its land was grubbed up. Rumours begun to circulate that the wine was pasteurized, though they would not be the only one – even Lafite-Rothschild dabbled with the practice in the 1920s and in fact, Bellot des Minières had experimented with pasteurisation himself. Georges Boutemy, a textile merchant, took over the property in 1940. Despite the backdrop of war and its forlorn state, the château was ranked Cru Classé de Graves in 1953. By this time, the area under vine had withered to just 10 hectares, with cattle wandering around pasture where vines once grew.
Bob Wilmers bought Haut-Bailly in 1998 and was laid to rest near the estate after his death in 2017.
It was not until 1955, when Haut-Bailly was purchased by Belgian wine merchant Daniel Sanders, that matters began to improve. His family had produced linen; his parents fled their homeland during World War I, where Sanders was seriously injured. After being stretchered away from the frontline, he was sent to England to convalesce. Sanders married Yvonne St. Marc, whose family owned the Barsac estate Château du Mayne and began selling his father-in-law’s wines in tandem with the linen business. He was on the lookout to add another Bordeaux estate, and an encounter with a 1945 Haut-Bailly sparked his interest. By that time, it was dilapidated with only approximately one-third of its land under vine.
“Daniel Sanders was my great-grandfather,” Véronique Sanders tells me. “He was Flemish. He had a strong character. Flemish people tend to be a bit frugal, which probably explains why Haut-Bailly was keenly priced.”
Following Sanders’ acquisition, together in consultation with a young professor, Émile Peynaud, a program of long-overdue improvements commenced: replacing ancient wooden vats with concrete and presciently sizing them according to individual plots. Sanders adopted a prudent approach to replanting and only gradually increased the land under vine to 28 hectares. The château building had been uninhabited since 1955, and under Sanders, it was completely renovated along with the cellars and residential buildings. In 1979, the winemaking was taken over by Daniel Sander’s son, Jean.
“Jean Sanders, my grandfather, was a very different person,” Véronique Sanders continues. “He was less austere than his father and more sociable. Many that knew him kept his letters that were always beautifully written. He had a lot of friends in Bordeaux and was well-liked. I spent my childhood coming to Haut-Bailly with my sisters to see him during the holidays, sometimes helping out in the vineyard or with the bottling. Any money that was made back then was invested into the vineyard rather than the château. My grandparents restored part of the building, the ground floor, though the complete renovation was not made until later.”
Pierre Sanders, Jean’s son, pursued a successful career in law. According to Véronique Sanders, he had ambitions to take over the property in the future, however, he was unable to acquire a majority of shares from the many cousins (her grandfather had two sisters with four children each). The story of Haut-Bailly was about to embark on a new chapter.
Though I took pictures of Véronique Sanders during my stay, this one from 2015 probably captures her personality best.
The Banker (Part Two)
In 1998, despite several high-profile potential buyers circling, Haut-Bailly was bought by Robert G. Wilmers, a Harvard graduate who enjoyed a stellar banking career; he had been chief executive of the American regional bank M&T since 1983. Though patently a savvy investor, his acquisition was much more than financially-motivated. It might be a cliché, but he simply fell in love with Haut-Bailly as soon as he set eyes upon it. Perhaps it was written in the stars. For a start, Wilmers was both a Francophile-cum-oenophile with a penchant for Bordeaux, whose wife was French. He shared a connection with Belgium, his father having been an executive of a Belgian utility company and grew up close to Brussels where the Sanders family had lived. In another twist of fate, Pierre Sanders had spent 12 months in Buffalo in 1961, when he was 17-years old, attending high school adjacent to where Bob Wilmers lived.
Wilmers appointed the late Professor Denis Dubourdieu as consultant, in hindsight an interesting decision since he was synonymous with Bordeaux’s white varieties. It was an indication that Wilmers sought to move away from the heavily-extracted style prevalent at that time. He incepted a phased improvement for the property, both in the vineyard and cellars, as well as completely renovating the château building and surrounding gardens. Though I visited Haut-Bailly countless times, Wilmers was always in the United States when I rang their doorbell. In 2014, I finally met him with his wife and Véronique Sanders for lunch in London. He was a very modest, congenial man, far removed from the stereotypical brash banker. He passed away in New York in 2017 but chose to be interred in Bordeaux; his funeral took place at a church in Léognan. His grave lies close to the small cemetery where Alcide Bellot des Minières rests. His son, Chris Wilmers, now heads the family board.
Véronique Sanders and technical director Gabriel Vialard who arrived at the estate from Smith Haut-Lafitte in 2002. Amongst Vialard's various decisions were to cease cold pre-fermentation maceration, stop délestage and punching down to reduce extraction.
Wilmers resolved to return Haut-Bailly to its former glories. However, with no plans to retire from his day job, as an absentee landlord he needed someone to run Haut-Bailly. He assiduously chose to keep the Sanders lineage – continuity a key factor in his decision. Jean Sanders remained a director for two years, during which time his grand-daughter, Véronique, worked alongside the team. When he stepped back, Wilmers appointed her to permanently run the estate, which she has done for more than 20 years, one of the few female directors of a major Bordeaux château. I asked her background prior to joining Haut-Bailly.
“I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne,” she told me. “Literature, economics and communication. I graduated in semiology – the study of words and signs. Later, I worked for a famous advertising company [Publicis] and lived in Prague, Czechoslovakia, for a couple of years, working at different agencies. At that time, I was worried that Haut-Bailly would be sold and so I decided to study for a diploma in oenology and passed the DUAD (University Diploma in Wine Tasting Aptitude) from the University of Bordeaux around 1997 or 1998.”
I am sure that Sanders had aspirations to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather. She told me that she literally returned from overseas finding the estate being signed away.
“When I returned from a trip to New York, the deal was done, and it was the best thing that could have happened to Haut-Bailly. The takeover has been a unique opportunity given Bob Wilmers brilliant vision with regards to the future of the estate. Thanks to him and to his family, we have been able to move forward in full respect of the property, its history, its exceptional terroir and the philosophy which inspired all owners of the château over centuries. Twenty-four years later, one can clearly see that what Haut-Bailly has accomplished and is attracting admiration and respect both in Pessac-Léognan and in the eyes of all the Crus Classés of Bordeaux. We know our purpose and what we stand for,” she replied.
The heart of Haut-Bailly: the parcel of vines planted by Alcide Bellot des Minières.
I asked Sanders if she could recall her first exchange with Wilmers. She told me that he asked her about her ambition and her goals for Haut-Bailly. I speculated that it might have been difficult at first. Would she be taken seriously as one of the handful of women running a major property in what can be a misogynistic vocation?
“Of course, it was not easy at first. The head winemaker, “the previous Gabriel” [as Sanders refers to Vialard's predecessor] had been at Haut-Bailly for 25 years,” she tells me. The obfuscation that she met during those initial years still seems to bristle. She recollects how during the 2000 vintage, she wanted to parse out the old vines during the harvest in order to gain precision, though to quote Sanders herself, it was not obvious to everyone. “I was always thinking how privileged I was,” she continues. “But you have to prove you are up to the job and work hard. I am against quotas for women, though unintentionally our staff is 50% men and 50% women across Haut-Bailly.”
The combination of Bob Wilmers and Véronique Sanders proved to be an ideal working relationship. “I was lucky to have someone to invest in Haut-Bailly. I would suggest something, and though he always thought wisely before committing, he usually said yes. We could move fast. For example, one decision I made was to pick in different waves through the vineyard. That is how my grandfather had taught me to harvest in Barsac. We used to pick the whole crop at Haut-Bailly in around 12 days and now it is four or five weeks.” Likewise, the relationship between Technical Director Gabriel Vialard and Sanders has proven crucial, particularly during the period of construction. Sanders tells me that everything is done in consultation with her wingman. Winemaking and blending decisions are also advised by Axel Marchal of the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux.
Incidentally, Véronique Sanders is married to Alexandre van Beek, who runs the Margaux estate of Giscours. The pair met at Hong Kong airport on a trip to Asia organised by Jean-Michel Cazes for the Commanderie de Bontemps.
From this perspective, it is clear how the new winery is blended into the landscape. It’s under the flora and fauna on the left in case you were wondering.
The 33 hectare estate of Haut-Bailly contains 30 hectares under vine. The soil is Tertiary Period Pyrenean gravel over a clay-gravel subsoil. It is the only Cru Classé de Graves that only makes red wine, though I always ask Sanders’ when she will plant white grape varieties, knowing full well her answer. The current field blend comprises 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot planted at 10,000 vines per hectare using three rootstocks: 101-14, Riparia and 420A. Some plantings date from 1959, just after the devastating freeze, while the current vine age is around 35-years.
What Sanders refers to as the “heart of Haut-Bailly” is a four-hectare plot of old vines planted by Alcide Bellot des Minières. This comprises of 7/12 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1/12 each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Carmenère and Malbec. Back in 1901 in L’Oenophile magazine, Bellot des Minières had written: ‘These vines are of the highest quality, from very old stock, and planted in carefully-studied proportions to produce optimum quality in keeping with the soils of the various plots.”
“The ‘Previous Gabriel’ told me to pull out these old vines,” Sanders recalls. “A famous ampelographer studied the vines and told me to keep them for as long as I could. He found grape varieties that even he was unable to identify. So I decided not to eradicate the vines and replace them with the same grape variety in order to maintain the diversity. These vines are 115 to 120 years old having survived the freeze in 1956. They are still productive and do not get diseased. In wintertime, they are like bonsai. They can represent 15 to 20% of the final blend. I often read articles that describe them as pre-phylloxera. But they are grafted onto American rootstock.”
At Haut-Bailly, they practice bespoke pruning for each parcel advised by a team of specialist Italian viticulturalists and they eschew widespread de-leafing. I ask Sanders more about the vineyard husbandry at Haut-Bailly.
This shot is taken from the entrance of the new winery amongst the flora and fauna that disguise the new construction.
“We do a lot of research at Haut-Bailly in terms of viticulture. At the moment we are 1/3 organic and biodynamic. We have never used weed-killer because we always ploughed the soils. Now we spray much less, spraying only when we must and we don’t use CMR [carcinogenic] products. We have a very ‘clean’ viticulture and consequently we lose a lot to mildew, the equivalent of two crops in the last five years.”
I broached the subject of organic/biodynamic viticulture further. Whilst Sanders is willing to trial this approach in part of the vineyard, she is reluctant to devote the entire vineyard to such practices. Part of the reason is that when they conducted soil studies at Haut-Bailly, they found traces of copper that had been applied during the 19th century that have never fully broken down.
“I think that people see viticulture as being black or white. It’s too simplistic. It is Manichaean. You have to find a balance between environment, economics and the social (employees etc). We have a 10-year program to see what kind of viticulture is appropriate for our vineyard.”
When Wilmers bought the property in 1998, he instigated a three-year geological survey under Professor Kees van Leeuwen that same year and also experimented with single variety trial bottlings to ascertain the performance of the vineyard (Sanders once served these blind and they are fascinating to compare.) The following year, the vat-room was installed with small-capacity vats. In 2002, Wilmers rebuilt the château’s slate roof. Of course, this is all moot now that the winery has been reconstructed.
Like most estates these days, the harvest is conducted on a plot-by-plot basis. Sanders made the decision early-on to harvest the parcel of old vines planted by Bellot des Minières separately. Since the various unknown varieties march to a different beat and ripen at different times, red tags are tied around those known to reach maturity earlier at véraison. Bunches are picked by hand and sorted three times, in the vineyard, at the winery reception and finally using a vibrating sorting table.
Looking over the upper floor of the new winery, the circular mezzanine sitting atop the concrete vats.
Before broaching the subject of the new winery, I briefly discussed the harvest at Haut-Bailly. I asked whether they use optical sorting.
“The most important sorting is in the vineyard,” Sanders answers. “We use eyes. We tell the pickers to only put in the basket what they would eat. Then [at the winery reception] we have two sorting tables before and after de-stemming.”
Touring with Sanders and Vialard, I must have been one of the first non-French journalists to inspect the winery close-up, since it was just a few days after travel restrictions had been lifted. The project was initiated back in 2015 when it became clear that for Haut-Bailly to reach the next level, they would have to renovate the existing cellars. I had toured the old facility three or four times and whilst nothing lacked, nor did it possess anything different to other wineries. Perhaps the key to the ultimate success of the project was the decision to hire architect, Daniel Romeo, born in 1974. There was a two-year period of consultation and design before cranes and bulldozers revved their engines. Interestingly, Sanders tells me that they mapped the soils and subsoils and used this information as the basis for the winery design. One of the most innovative decisions was to submerge 2/3rds underground so that it forms a discrete hillock adjacent to the original château that regulates the ambient temperature. Its exterior height is less than the château-building so that the latter remains the focus of attention.
Surveying the new winery from the vineyard, a first-time visitor might not realize where it is located. The domed ceiling is landscaped by Hervé Rosset with flora and fauna, assorted mountain pine, katsuras and dogwoods. A winding cobblestone path made of Italian stone connects the château building to the winery. I jest with Sanders that it resembles Teletubby land. Aesthetically, the closest comparison might be with Cheval Blanc’s winery that is ingeniously blended into the landscape, though Haut-Bailly’s takes it to a different level. [Post-script: It was only after researching this piece that I learned that Romeo was involved in the construction of Cheval Blanc in 2015.]
This photograph taken from the upper mezzanine illustrates the circular design of the vat room, the stainless-steel vats forming an exterior circle and concrete vat an inner circle.
It is only upon physically approaching the winery that you appreciate the size of what lies underfoot. The figures are impressive: 23,000 cubic meters of excavated earth without a single vine having to be removed. This created 2,000 square meters of floor space with the 38-meter domed ceiling 8.80 meters above the floor of the vat-room without any supporting pillars. Vialard explained that to create the ceiling, the cement had to be applied in a single pour on a single night in order to maintain its uniformity and avoid any cracks as the cement dried. Of course, for that to be successful, all the heavy machinery and workers have to be in place when the weather is right. The first feature that I notice was before entering, peering down from a footbridge onto a circular slip-road where vehicles will deliver fruit. It’s completely disguised and fully covered by part of the verdant dome roof, meaning it is sheltered from the elements. It can be blowing a hurricane during harvest, yet the reception point is protected from every side.
Stepping inside along a walkway made of trapezoidal oak parquet, the interior is a soothing blend of oak, white and grey. The design uses three materials as a constant theme: white concrete, light oak wood and glass. The paradox is that although the winery is mainly undergrowth, there is plenty of natural light that floods through. Maybe there is a slight Scandi ambiance in terms of coloration and simplicity/economy of design. This is not a flash or ostentatious winery, and from the start, Vialard stresses how functionality was the priority for every facet signed off before construction.
The winery is circular in design, so nothing new there, and that shape is the most efficient in terms of daily tasks and transferring from one stage of the winemaking process to another. It is also vertical so that the next stage of vinification lies directly below, permitting the use of gravity throughout.
The mezzanine level houses the 26 concrete and 20 stainless steel vats, all truncated cone-shaped with double-lined isothermal walls. Supplemented by another eight variable-sized vats, they range in size from 200 hectoliters down to 50 hectoliters to tailor each parcel to individual vats. The upper walkway seems to be supported by the vats, almost as if they were chairs with shallow backrests. These allow direct access from above, or rather, I assume they do, because I cannot see any stainless steel doors. Vialard kneels down and opens a trap door, and suddenly I am peering through a grill down into the empty vat below. Vats are not the only thing hidden away. Even the electric sockets are discretely covered. Vialard then presses a green button that lights up the interior of the vat – another innovation that I have not seen before.
Gabriel Vialard shows the green button. Press this and it launches Thunderbird 2.
We then descend a gently arcing oak and glass suspended staircase to the barrel cellar that likewise follow the circular design. The original barrel cellar was a little short of space, but this is far more capacious with room for 900 barrels, 650 on the bottom level and 250 on top if necessary. Barrels come from six cooperages, and the wine is matured for around 18 months using 50% to 60% new oak depending on the vintage. There are usually just two rackings during élevage. Sanders invites me to stand at the centre of the barrel cellar, presumably to marvel at the arcing structure overhead. It’s here that I discover the intriguing acoustics of the winery. She invites me to lean in and place my ear next to the circular concrete wall. Walking over to the opposite side, she says a few words and weirdly it sounds as if she is talking right next to me. It’s the same acoustic quirk as The Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Production of the Grand Vin is now 6,000 to 8,000 cases compared to 10,000 to 12,000 in previous years, with stricter selection for second and third labels, Haut-Bailly II (previously La Parde de Haut-Bailly) and HB respectively. A rosé was also debuted in 2004 though not made every year.
The circular formation of the barrels on the ground floor. Stand in the centre for acoustic revelations.
Our tasting comprised a complete vertical from 2000 to 2019, followed by a selection of older vintages served blind over lunch. I augment these with a smattering of older bottles tasted way back in 2007 when I asked Sanders if she could serve the most challenging vintages, and she duly obliged by serving the 1977 and 1980 inter alia.
Let me commence with the bottles predating Bob Wilmers’ acquisition in 1998. Older bottles of Haut-Bailly are not easy to come by, appearing rarely either on merchants’ lists or at auction. The château’s own reserves are meagre, as is so often the case, therefore it was a privilege to taste some of these older gems. There is a misconception that older vintages of Haut-Bailly pale against their modern-day counterparts. I have never found this true, evinced by a memorable vertical held a few years ago in London, attended by Véronique Sanders. We tasted vintages back to the 1961 that were impressive even within the context of this lauded growing season. Less renowned than the 1961 is 1964, better known for its Right Bank wines. Nobody had told that the 1964 Haut-Bailly, unapologetically Pomerol-like on the nose with a lovely plummy palate, was just magnificent. Even better is the 1966 Haut-Bailly, which Sanders divulged was one of the last bottles in their cellar. Stunningly complex on the nose with light marine scents, it was a paradigm of mature Graves on the palate with a lovely piquancy that urged you back for another sip.
The 1971 Haut-Bailly was opened as it was my birth-year. It could not keep up with the 1964 or 1966, but had elegiac grace. One can put forward a strong argument that it was during the seventies and eighties when the estate took their foot off the pedal. I have had positive experiences courtesy of the 1982 and 1989 in the past, though some like the 1981 and 1986 fail to reach full potential. The early nineties were challenging for everyone because of the dearth of decent growing seasons, but the turnaround began in the middle of the decade with solid performances in 1995 and 1996, both of which are fully mature and perfect to drink now.
Tasting through the last two decades, it was interesting to see how Haut-Bailly took a little time to find its groove under Bob Wilmers. The 2000 and 2001 Haut-Bailly have both aged well, though they don’t possess the complexity of more recent vintages. There is a brief lull with the following two vintages, especially the 2003 Haut-Bailly, when I think that many Pessac-Léognan wines suffered acutely from the heat, more intense here than in the Médoc that benefits from its proximity to estuary waters. It is the 2004 Haut-Bailly that signals improvements are afoot, the first that I think punches above its weight with a little more apparent sapidity. There is another leap with the 2008 Haut-Bailly, reward for what turned out to be one of the longest harvests on record, quite understated but definitely classy. Between the 2009 and 2010 Haut-Bailly, I err towards the latter that is more backward, yet possesses impressive grip and delivers a lovely liquorice-tinged finish.
The noughties began with two more challenging vintages, the 2012 Haut-Bailly seeming to have the edge over the slightly conservative 2011, whilst I am increasingly finding that even my favourite château’s 2013s are beginning to run out of puff with time. But the 2014 Haut-Bailly compensates for the shortfall in the previous season, a wonderful expression of the vintage with its incense-tinged aromatics and irresistible harmony on the palate. In some ways, it is like the 2004 in that it looks the limitations of that growing season square in the eye and says, whatever. It’s a vintage I might be stocking up in my cellar as it should start drinking well in the near future. Amongst recent vintages, the 2015 and 2016 Haut-Bailly are evenly matched at the moment when I presumed that the latter might have had its nose out in front. They are both brilliant wines and they have been followed by an impressive performance in 2017 and 2018.
Haut-Bailly is a château that has strived towards greatness since its earliest days. Three or four Pessac-Léognan estates jostle for status as Pessac-Léognan’s finest wine beyond its First Growth, and Haut-Bailly is one of the strongest contenders. In its youth, it can be quite flamboyant and concentrated, much more intense than Domaine de Chevalier for example. It requires bottle age to temper its exuberance, and I feel that too many crack open a bottle of Haut-Bailly prematurely. Older vintages testify too its longevity and as such, it is a wine that reaches its zenith after 12 to 15 years, cruising at high altitude for many more. Will the new winery improve the wine even further? Personally, I feel that quality is more dictated by the potential of the vineyard, viticulture and harvest. What a state-of-the-art winery is more effective at doing is raising quality in challenging vintages, thereby creating more consistency. With that in mind, at time of writing, I am looking forward to tasting the 2021 vintage as a new chapter opens for this Pessac-Léognan. I think that Firmin Le Bailly, Jean and Daniel Sanders and of course, Bob Wilmers, approve of the direction in which their beloved estate now heads…perhaps Alcide Bellot des Minières grumbling that they continue to use American rootstock.
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