Wine Tasting | Château Haut-Bailly 1998-2017, the stuff of legends

A few weeks ago, Château Haut-Bailly hosted a tasting that all wine enthusiasts would dream of: twenty vintages from 1998 to 2017. Angélique tells us how it went…

Translated from an article written by Angélique de Lencquesaing

It was cold, it was rainy, and the strikes had brought trains to a halt, but nothing was going to stop me from reaching Bordeaux to attend the tasting of the year. Perhaps of the decade. We were there to discover, one after the other, the twenty vintages produced during the era of the unforgettable Bob Wilmers (owner from 1998 until his passing in 2017).

The work of Véronique Sanders is founded on continuity. Above all, the continuity of her family history, since it was her grandfather who took over the property in 1955, passionately committed as he was to restoring the brilliance of Haut-Bailly’s wine after several decades underscored by war and crisis. The continuity of more recent history, too. Château Haut-Bailly, acquired by the banker Bob Wilmers in 1998, saw a trajectory of searing success that was thrilling to observe. Wilmers, a learned man and an art enthusiast, was a patron to whom the city of Bordeaux is indebted, as much in terms of wine – he was president of the Amis américains de la Cité du vin (American friends to the City of wine) – as in terms of art, since he worked closely with the city’s museums. He was an eminent Francophile and a brilliant banker whose success took nothing away from his finesse and humour, able to instantly charm anyone lucky enough to cross his path. Wilmers also saw the importance of continuity in his work, hence his decision to ask Véronique Sanders, recently equipped with her DUAD (Diplôme universitaire d’aptitude à la degustation), to take up the torch in running the property. This she has done with great talent and success, guided by the sage advice of Denis Dubourdieu and by his successor Axel Marchal, with a team led by Gabriel Vialard, technical director.

Bob Wilmers passed away in 2017. His inheritance was in no doubt, with his son Chris having been named President of the council. An environment specialist, this modest researcher who teaches at the University of California (Santa Cruz) is attentively following the changes taking place at Haut-Bailly, notably in terms of the vinification processes. His knowledge and research in the area of biodiversity and ecosystem preservation brings an invaluable perspective to the choices made at the property, in order to fully respect the life of the soil and care for the land in the most fitting way possible. He is also keeping a close eye on the building work currently being carried out on the site, with the construction of a new winery that should be ready for the 2020 harvest. Chris is particularly humble when faced with Sanders’ talent, elegantly evoking how her appointment was one of the best decisions his father ever made.

Every year, Véronique Sanders sets herself quite the challenge by seeking to summarise in one word or one expression the character of the vintage at the heart of Haut-Bailly’s vines. The question looms large of how to reduce to just a few letters the fruit of a whole year of attentive work, a year of patience, doubts, and careful choices. A year of sunshine, rain, heat, and disease; a year of cold snaps, frost, of highs and lows. A phrase to condense the expression of a style which, year after year, sculpts the profile and the personality of Château Haut-Bailly’s fine wine.

Château Haut-Bailly is certainly worthy of attention. Its wonderful terroir has perfect exposure at the top of a hillock, allowing the vines to spread out over the gentle slope and benefit at once from good sunshine and ideal drainage. It is made up of a jigsaw of plots with complementing characteristics, bringing the four grape varieties together harmoniously to make the wine’s raw material.

To see all the vintages lined up in their glasses was a true picture of beauty! A kaleidoscope of subtly varying reds, from lightly brick-coloured to intense crimson, some almost like ink and others a brighter shade of ruby.

To echo the craft of winemaking that dates back so far, requiring rigorous, precise, and tenacious work, we sought to find an analogy with another noble material. This should be a material that, like wine, evokes the senses of texture, suppleness, and touch. Seeking a material that equally inspires those who work and create, collection after collection, year after year, we settled upon a comparison with fabric. This serves as a rich and enlightening reference point in these tasting notes.

Château Haut-Bailly 1998 – “Merlot blessed by the Gods”

Dense in appearance, the first wine of the series is an instant charmer, with its particularly pure nose exuding a marked roundness. Perhaps the Merlot’s influence? This vintage did indeed reserve a place of honour for that grape variety, harvested in the rains of late-September and making up a higher percentage than usual in the blend (41%). If the fruit makes itself known on the nose, the palate of the 1998 remains nevertheless quite discreet, and still slightly closed. Its attack is gentle, unfurling a pleasant tannic structure. It has a delicate undertone, and the overall effect is a bit premature, deserving of a few more years of ageing in order to soften sufficiently. Its aromas are elegant, bringing together such notes as black fruits, graphite, and cedar. It has a pleasant acidity and possesses a digestive quality, a surge of freshness, and fine length.

Its fabric: a delicate, silk taffeta that creases at the touch

Château Haut-Bailly 1999 – “Harmony”

Considering the capricious nature of the weather during the harvest period of 1999, the development of the domain’s wine faced some uncertainty surrounding whether to harvest at a particular moment or wait in the hope of riper grapes. Whilst at times this became a game of chance, the wine itself reveals nothing of this uneasiness: its nose is as pure as usual, delicately lifted by notes of spice. Black fruit dominates, enveloped by aromas of oak and smoke. On the palate, it has a harsh attack that is almost austere, but this gives way to a more flavourful finish that is wonderfully round. A fine, classic wine.

Its fabric: a flannel, not too thick but with a certain flair

Château Haut-Bailly 2000 – “Mythical”

It is perhaps the climate in which this vintage was produced, two degrees higher than average, that evokes a stroll through an Italian botanical garden in the hills of Ravello, for example. The nose is bursting with red and black fruits like ripe cherry and blackcurrant, exuding sensations of summer, sun, contentment. And with such energy to the taste! Its attack is vigorous, bringing an ample texture that gently lines the palate. The finesse of its subtly smoky character is delicious.

This wine is still relatively young: the presence of discreet tannins is the sign of a good foundational structure. It is already a delight to taste, what with its lovely balance, but this 2000 vintage will reward a few more years in the cellar (if you can resist) in order for the tannins to soften further. Its finish brings perfectly ripe fruit, simply exquisite. The 2000 is, indeed, mythical.

Its fabric: a velvet, shimmering with nuanced hues

Château Haut-Bailly 2001 – “An elegant vintage”

A Château Haut-Bailly wine described as elegant? Surely this goes without saying! The year 2001 brought an exceptional harvest of small, deliciously concentrated grapes promising the very best produce.

On the nose, the delicately floral bouquet is complemented by a composition of gentle spices, bringing together white pepper, cinnamon, and a trace of smoky notes. At the fourth wine, we begin to lose ourselves in these aromas, wondering whether to ask Véronique Sanders to one day fashion a perfume under the auspices of Haut-Bailly…

2001 in Bordeaux is, for many properties, a secret closely kept. In the shadow of the legendary 2000 vintage, wines made in 2001, often wonderfully supple and sumptuous, instantly offer a sense of fullness. And Haut-Bailly is a dazzling example of this. The attack is gentle and round with a velvety texture. The centre of the palate, on the other hand, is vibrant and full of energy, leading to a long and intense finish. A superb balance!

Its fabric: a silk crêpe

Château Haut-Bailly 2002 – “A delicious surprise”

In general, the 2002 vintage may not have left a lasting impression on wine enthusiasts. However, at Haut-Bailly, the end of the season brought a pleasant surprise, with the late summer’s gentle rays of sunshine perfecting the ripeness of the grapes. A meticulous sorting of the harvest meant the poorer quality grapes could be discarded.

Its nose is quite discreet, delicately perfumed, floral, perhaps holding back a bit. A polite way to seek forgiveness for a less notorious vintage, undoubtedly. The velvety attack precedes a delicately oaky overall effect that is perfectly balanced. The wine is decidedly discreet on the palate as well. There are lingering aromas of black fruits, kirsch cherry, and a soupçon of pepper. There is nothing austere about this vintage, only a certain well-raised Bordeaux restraint.

Its fabric: an Organdy voile, delicately embroidered

Château Haut-Bailly 2003 – “Atypical”

Nobody could forget that 2003 was a scorching vintage. At Haut-Bailly, they refrained from cutting back the leaves too much in order to protect the grapes from being burnt by the sun. Fortunately, some welcome storms stopped the vines suffering from water stress. Thus, the maturation of the grapes wasn’t heavily interrupted.

The result here denounces many of the clichés we hear about the 2003 vintage. The first nose, which reveals lightly smoky notes, makes way for a bouquet of finely toasted aromas. On the palate, its acidity is perfectly mastered, admirably retaining a clear freshness and vivacity. Its texture is wonderfully round, finishing with a beautifully full sensation.

Its fabric: a soft, cotton poplin

Château Haut-Bailly 2004 – “Great precision”

2004 was a lovely year with an abundant harvest owing much to the Merlot grapes, which make up 45% of the blend.

A nose with a bouquet of gentle aromas carries perfectly ripe black fruit, lifted by some more exotic nuances that give the wine a subtle twist. It is precise, just, and well-made. The archetype of a wine that does exactly what it’s told! On the palate, its texture is elegant with delicate aromas of vanilla along with a touch of pepper here and there. It has classic length, persistent without being heavy. A decidedly classy wine with excellent balance.

Its fabric: a close-knit linen

Château Haut-Bailly 2005 – “Legendary”

Geniuses don’t always make the effort to charm. Indeed, they don’t need to. At first it seems as though this 2005 doesn’t want to give its best. It’s not making the effort. Perhaps it’s not happy to have been opened too soon. You know the type. Better to leave it to sulk and come back in a while.

A bit later, this vintage is playing a different tune. It’s decided to cooperate. It has an immediately fresh nose that exudes purity. Then there is an admirable bouquet of fruit, before notes of liquorice and subtly oaky aromas. Overall, it is exceptionally balanced.

On the palate, its character is infinitely delicate, with an intensity that sets out more gradually. The freshness continues, airy and intense, before dropping delicately. Its length is unforgettable, much like the lingering aromas that return. There is undoubtedly a stroke of genius in this wine. To drink it is like hearing the slow movement of Chopin’s Concerto no. 2 on the piano: elegance, sensuousness, and intensity abound.

Its fabric: a velvet panne

Château Haut-Bailly 2006 – “Classicism”

Careful, at Haut-Bailly ‘classic’ does not mean boring! This 2006 takes an indulgent approach to the property’s fine wine. Its nose is immediately charming with fresh aromas of black fruit accompanied by touches of toasted notes, through which an oakiness emerges to structure the whole.

On the palate, its attack is gentle and decidedly delicious. Full of vivacity, it becomes fantastically full, bringing a combination of freshness and acidity that makes it irresistible. With its superb structure and intensity, its powerful and spiced finish, and its remarkable length, this is a beautiful gastronomic wine (and indeed, at this point, lunchtime was approaching…)

Its fabric: a beautiful Cashmere piece

Château Haut-Bailly 2007 – “Classicism”

We can’t deny that the 2007 vintage got some bad press, marked as it was by a rainy spring that brought the ideal conditions for disease, then a summer that was slightly too fresh. Fortunately, the sunny weather in the late season turned out to be providential. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up most of the 2007 blend (70%). On the nose, the tannins and oak notes aren’t subtle. It gives a dense impression, a bit intimidating, austere perhaps.

On the palate, however, it’s a different story! Haut-Bailly never ceases to amaze with its delicate character. Its attack is gentle and subtle, preceding an exquisite overall mouth feel. An excess of oak might have been feared, but there’s no question of this. The tannins are soft, the texture is silky, rounded off with a lovely vivacity and a finish lightly lifted by notes of vanilla.

Its fabric: a silk taffeta

Château Haut-Bailly 2008 – “Bright and gentle”

The year 2008 was not smooth sailing at Haut-Bailly. The harsh winter called for special attention in the vineyard, and a rainy May meant that the teams weren’t given much respite. However, yet again the late season allowed the grapes to ripen after their earlier struggle in flowering. The grapes, small in size, are concentrated and intense.

This 2008 is especially sumptuous. Its fresh, harmonious nose paves the way for a lively attack that bursts on the palate. This is a wine full of vibrant energy, an energy that is carried through right to the end, rounding off with a gentle finish.

Its fabric: cotton wool, cocooning-style

Château Haut-Bailly 2009 – “Mythical”

2009 turned out to be, unsurprisingly, one of the stars of this wine tasting!

This vintage’s exceptional climate didn’t only make for the perfect maturation of the grapes, but also the sunny weather in September allowed for the harvest to be collected carefully and precisely, at the point of ideal ripeness. The team chose to harvest only in the morning in order to preserve the freshness of the grapes – a luxury, it must be said.

It perhaps goes without saying that the 2009, sublime as it is, was one of my absolute favourites from this tasting. However, as with all of the property’s finest vintages, this one doesn’t immediately flourish. It deserves to be named among the Château’s best, that much is certain.

Its nose is discreet and delicate, exuding a sense of intense freshness from the outset. The attack on the palate is masterful, with a burst of flavour coming from a bouquet of succulent fruits, and an elegant texture from start to finish. It does all of this without crossing the threshold of excess into opulence. Bordeaux’s excellence is concentrated in this bottle, justifying the region’s acclaim as quite inimitable.

Its fabric: a silk drape, like water in your hands, forever revealing new nuances and contours

This is how the profiles of Château Haut-Bailly’s fine wine have evolved so far…tasting notes from the 2010 – 2017 vintages are to follow in part 2

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