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Producer profile: Château Haut-Bailly

Revitalised by its new owners since the 1950s, this relatively small but well-positioned Graves estate is regaining the high status it enjoyed a century ago, reveals John Stimpfig

Why is Château Haut-Bailly still such an insiders’ wine? Is it because this discreet, bijou estate makes only a few thousand cases of grand cru classe de Graves. Or is it also because canny collectors jealously like to keep it a closely guarded secret?

  • See Decanter’s Haut-Bailly tasting notes below

One thing is clear – today Haut-Bailly is one of the most consistent and quintessentially elegant clarets. Another is that its estimable quality stems from an exceptional red wine terroir, which its various owners and custodians have often done their utmost to reflect during its illustrious history. In effect therefore, Haut-Bailly has been doubly blessed – both by its proprietors and its position.

The vineyard sits adjacent to the château in a single unified block on the highest ridge of the Pessac-Léognan AC. The vines fall away on a gentle gradient, giving perfect exposure. A special mesoclimate protects it from spring frosts, while a mix of gravelly soils and subsoils provide minerals, moderate water stress and excellent drainage. Jean-Bernard Delmas, formerly of Château Haut-Brion, has famously described it as ’a truly great terroir’.

Haut-Bailly – a timeline

1461 Earliest records of vines on the estate’s gravelly rise

1630 Owners Firmin Le Bailly and Nicolas de Leuvarde expand and consolidate the vineyard to its present-day size of 33ha

1872 Alcide Bellot des Minières buys Haut-Bailly

1918 Haut-Bailly is bought by Frantz Malvesin

1955 Estate acquired by the Belgian Daniel Sanders

1979 Jean Sanders takes over from his father

1997 Véronique Sanders joins Haut-Bailly

1998 Robert G Wilmers purchases the property from the Sanders family

2000 Véronique Sanders appointed estate manager (and subsequently president)

2002 Gabriel Vialard becomes technical director

2012 Robert G Wilmers buys and renovates Château Le Pape

Magic formula

This all took a number of years – and not an inconsiderable amount of cash. ‘Bob’s investment was a bubble of pure oxygen for Haut-Bailly,’ says Sanders. ‘His understanding that the quality of the wine was paramount and that everything flowed from there enabled us to move not just faster, but also further.’

The impact really showed in the 2004 vintage. ‘That was the first big step,’ says Sanders. Another came in 2008, and it’s no coincidence that these two classical vintages are not the most lauded in Bordeaux. ‘This is one of the strengths of Haut-Bailly,’ she adds. ‘We always outperform in the so-called off-vintages.’ The 2013 has to be tasted to be believed, proving Haut-Bailly never misses.

With every vintage, her aim is constant: to bring out the best of Haut-Bailly’s prized terroir. What she’s looking for is a subtle balance between finesse and concentration. ‘My goal is fruit purity, freshness, smoothness and structure with soft, ripe tannins and pronounced aromatics.’ The blend varies from year to year, sometimes quite dramatically, which is further testament to Haut-Bailly’s remarkable consistency. Her harvest-time secret is always to pick the Merlot early for freshness and wait and wait for the Cabernet, harvesting it at the last possible moment.

‘Ultimately, I want a new golden era for Haut-Bailly, as we enjoyed in the 19th century,’ she says. Some (myself included) would argue that she and Wilmers have already achieved it. In today’s market it’s impossible to outperform and out-price the first growths. But Haut-Bailly has unquestionably closed the gap, taking the estate to new heights. Today it is a grand cru classé de Graves that enjoys the equivalent of ‘super-second’ status, often without the attendant price-tag. Most recently, Wilmers bought and renovated an estate nearby called Château Le Pape, which already shows great promise under Sanders’ supervision. ‘Bob always has plans. He is always looking. He often jokes by saying, “I have a good team here and I want to keep it busy”.’

Sanders clearly thrives on the challenge and couldn’t be more fulfilled. ‘There’s something magical about this place that I feel very intensely.’ The same goes for Wilmers and the rest of the remarkable group of people who love and care for this gem of a vineyard.

Haut-Bailly couldn’t be in better hands.

Tasting Haut-Bailly:


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