Living the dream
- Friday 7 October 2005
Chateau Haut-Bailly and its vineyard sit on the top of the ancient river-and-glacier-formed left bank of the River Garonne, a couple of kilometres east of Léognan in the Graves, and about 10km south of Bordeaux itself.
Founded by Parisian banker Firmin Le Bailly in the early 17th century, it has changed hands several times since. The château itself was built in 1872 by the second owner Alcide Henri Bellot, who also laid down the great reputation and quality of the wine. Heirs and subsequent owners saw the property through a relatively barren period until 1955 when it was bought by Daniel Sanders, a Belgian wine merchant in Bordeaux, in a very run down state. It remained in the family until 1998, when American banker Robert Wilmers bought it. But Wilmers retained great respect for the Sanders family and, in 2000, he installed Daniel’s great-granddaughter, Véronique Sanders, as general manager.
Haut-Bailly is one of my favourite clarets: moderate in colour, gentle in texture, with the medium body typical of most Graves, and ripe, red fruit flavours with a marked gravelly scent. But how have the recent changes in management and ownership affected the winemaking?
In 2000, after a brief career in advertising, followed by a spell marketing wine in Germany, and aged only 33, Véronique Sanders took the reins at one of Bordeaux’s most esteemed estates. It seemed an unlikely appointment on the face of it. She had no experience in running an important property, the château was no longer in family ownership, and even had it been, this was skipping a generation.
‘Although I started my career in advertising, running the family property had been a dream of mine from a very young age,’ says Sanders. ‘In the mid-1990s I was barely 30, with no management experience. My grandfather was 75 and nearing retirement. But having decided I wanted to work in wine I did the Bordeaux University Tasting Diploma (DUAD) in 1997. At that stage Haut-Bailly’s future and succession seemed very uncertain, especially as my own father, Pierre, is not in wine at all, but a lawyer. I could sense that the estate would have to be sold. Several grand names were in the air, none of whom would have given an inexperienced 30-year-old the chance to run such a château – understandably!
‘But when Robert Wilmers bought the property in 1998, he wanted my grandfather to continue running the château for a couple of years while he looked for a suitable successor. At the same time, he asked me to look after the marketing and administration. And in 2000, Wilmers offered me the post of general manager. It was a remarkable act of faith, from an open American mind.’ But as Wilmers himself puts it: ‘She did such a great job that after a couple of years I asked her to run the whole thing.’
The one-piece vineyard surrounding the château has remained unchanged for 400 years. It comprises 34ha (hectares), 28 of them planted at 10,000 vines/ha, with an average vine age of 35 years and planted to 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Around 10,000 cases are produced every year.
Between 1998 and 2000 an extensive research programme took place, led by famed consultant Denis Dubourdieu, into the suitability of the existing grape variety/ rootstock combinations for the property’s soil conditions, a study which revealed everything to be in order. So much so that even the 80–90-year-old vines on the so-called croupe sacrée were left intact. This is the 7ha heart of the vineyard which always forms the base of the grand vin, still planted with 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, the balance being equally divided between Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmènere, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
The château itself has been restored outside and in, and Sanders has made several changes. ‘Visitors who used to know and love the red tile roof of Haut-Bailly will be disappointed,’ she says. ‘The new one is a lovely grey slate.’ The vat room now houses four times as many fermenting vats – smaller and corresponding precisely in size to the vineyard parcels – and two new chais have been built, designed to minimise the movements of the wine.
Crucial to the ‘new’ Haut-Bailly, of course, are winemaking and viticulture. In Gabriel Vialard they found a man who could combine the jobs, and Sanders is clearly delighted with him. ‘We are small enough, at 28ha, for this to be practical for one person. It is a major guarantee of quality to have one man doing both, and Vialard is very intelligent, very professional, and a pleasure to work with.’ Buildings and equipment apart, changes in the vineyard and viticulture have been modest. ‘I have been told that as a woman I work with more attention to detail, observing more closely just when individual vines and/or parcels ripen, harvesting sometimes only two days per week, sorting the fruit with more care, and so on.’
sticking to tradition
And as to the wine itself, did Wilmers want to change the style? ‘We don’t want to follow any particular fashion,’ says Sanders. ‘We want to keep the traditional Haut-Bailly style, but with a bit more density, a bit more velvet.’ And when I ask how she would characterise that ‘traditional style’ she doesn’t hesitate: ‘A quest for elegance, finesse, freshness, fruit and charm. My grandfather always used to say that André Gide’s definition of French art was also the perfect description of Haut-Bailly’s wine: rien de trop – nothing in excess. I have been told that the faluns (sedimentary sandstone, rich in fossilised shellfish remains) in our soil is one of the things that gives our wine its exceptional finesse, and having worked all year to allow the grapes to ripen perfectly to express this, we don’t want to destroy the terroir character by vinifying too hard, extracting too much.
‘Where oak treatment is concerned we are doing more blind tasting experiments with different barrels to try and discover what suits Haut-Bailly best, but we will only use 50–60% new wood in good vintages, maybe leaving the wine in the wood a little longer – 15–16 months, rather than 14.’
And what do they mean by ‘a bit more density’ and ‘a bit more velvet’? Are these euphemisms for concentration? ‘Non! But it is not easy to explain. I used to sing, and that’s exactly what my teacher used to say; you can have a sound with a richer timbre, without needing to sing loudly. It’s a question of finding how to express that sonority. That’s what we are trying to do.’
Sanders is succeeding in keeping standards high. ‘Taking over from my grandfather wasn’t easy because Haut-Bailly already had a good reputation. If I can do better I would love to, but first let’s do at least as well.’
If tastings of recent vintages are anything to go by, she is being modest, and that extra density of timbre is coming. As for the velvet, we will have to wait for a few years to see, but with the exception of the lighter vintages Haut-Bailly is consistently a four-star wine, and any recent year will give a great deal of drinking pleasure after 10–12 years. The 2002, 2001, 1999 and 1998 vintages offer remarkable value at around £200–220 per case. A mature vintage such as the excellent 1988 is around £350 a case. It is not only a great claret, it is remarkable value for its quality.
Was the appointment of Sanders an unlikely one? Yes. And she herself points out the irony of the fact. ‘It was the American purchase, which I was sure would end my dream, which actually made it come true. I’m sure not even the family would have offered me the manager’s position at my age, with my lack of experience!’ Chapeau bas, then, to Robert Wilmers for an imaginative, and sentimentally satisfying, choice.
Michael Schuster is a wine educator, and author of Essential Winetasting (£15.99, Mitchell Beazley).