I had been tuned into the lofty reputation of Château Haut-Bailly’s red wine for quite a while, but my introduction to it in the glass came at a past tasting of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux. The Bordelaise vintners regularly bring their wines to the USA for evaluation by the trade in late January.
It was the texture of Haut-Bailly’s wine that really grabbed my attention. The palate-feel was undeniably unique. The touch of the wine was clearly sublime – light, elegant, and interactive with minute micro-particles that I likened to snowflakes but were infinitesimally smaller. This was an entirely new textural experience for me in wine, and I found it completely captivating. I knew right away that I must learn more about this Château. I am about to take a journey into Haut-Bailly’s past, present, and future!
In the Medieval Epoch
In the 12th century the popularity of Bordeaux wines in England escalated following the marriage of the Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor, to Henry Plantagenet, who became King Henry II of England in 1152. Eleanor, clearly a popular girl, had also been formerly wedded to King Louis VII of France.
The Plantagenet marriage caused the French province of Aquitaine to become claimed as a portion of the Angevin (English) Empire. Thus, began the export of Bordeaux’s clairet wine to England. Now known as claret, a dark, dry, red Bordeaux wine, the claret at that time came mainly from Bordeaux’s primary wine district, Graves, meaning gravely soil.
To say that Château Haut-Bailly has a lengthy history isn’t exaggerating! As early as 1461 grapevines were cultivated for wine production in the area we now call Haut Bailly. In the 1530s the Goyanèche family and later the Daitze family integrated the preferred vineyard areas into the core of the vineyard we know today. In 1630 the estate was purchased from the Daitze family by Firmin Le Bailly and Nicolas de Leuvarde, Parisian bankers, and hence the estate name Haut-Bailly. The estate remained with the Bailly family line until 1736, when an Irishman, Thomas Barton, took over. At a time when claret was becoming more widely esteemed in the British Isles, Barton spread the virtues of Haut-Bailly through his business colleagues. Throughout the 18th century owners with resources including Christophe Lafaurie de Monbadon and his son Laurent, Mayor of Bordeaux, elevated the quality and status of the estate.
In 1872, Alcide Bellot des Minières obtained Haut-Bailly. Alcide acquired a reputation as a superb and energetic viticulturalist. When Phylloxera struck he went against the grain and didn’t graft his vines onto North American rootstalk as the rest of France and Europe did, but successfully employed a chemical cleansing mixture known as the Bordeaux Blend. He is credited with escalating the price Haut-Bailly fetched to equal that of the First Growths. Alcide also built the striking, stone château structure that remains the estate’s centerpiece today.
After Alcide, a tough act to follow, there was a period of decline in Haut-Bailly’s fortunes. In 1955 a Belgian wine négociant, Daniel Sanders, purchased Haut-Bailly, renovated vineyards and winery while returning the château’s wine to a prominent position in the world market.
An American, Robert G. Wilmers, a Harvard-schooled banker who was head of the M&T Bank in New York, purchased Haut-Bailly in 1998. An enduring fan of claret, Bob Wilmers took part in all the strategic decision making for the Château, and demonstrated passion as a proprietor along with his wife Elizabeth. He requested Sander’s son, Jean Sanders, to continue with the Château, and Sander’s Granddaughter Véronique to assist as general manager, which she remains today. Robert was eventually awarded the Chevalier rank for service to France in the Légion d’Honneur, the top French award of merit for service, and later elevated to the position of officer.
Sadly, in December 2017 Bob Wilmers passed away at age 83. His family is committed to carrying on his work on Haut-Bailly. Bob’s son Christopher succeeds his late Father as President of Château Haut-Bailly.
The Next Generation
I was fortunate to have an exclusive interview with the next generation, Christopher Wilmers, where I began my detailed acquaintance with Haut-Bailly. Although Christopher entered this world in New York, he has certainly been around. Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Kenya, Mexico, Switzerland, and of course France are on his “been there, done that” list. Christopher has an affinity for nature which he says he developed as a child spending time in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. He says that as a child, “I would spend summers playing in the woods with my friends, building tree forts, fishing and otherwise spending all day every day in nature. I loved it and it stuck.” In these locals Christopher says his activities ranged from hiking to skiing and mountain biking to observing wildlife like bird watching, to conducting all types of field work activities collecting data on his subjects. These became lifelong activities.
It’s not hard to see why today he is a Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Dr. Wilmers has published over 65 research papers, and is especially known for his paper “Gray Wolves as Climate Change Buffers in Yellowstone”. His research vindicated the reintroduction of Gray Wolves into Yellowstone National Park.
When I suggested that 65 research papers created a load of data, he responded, “Publishing is not a chore for me. I love it. For me it’s all about understanding how nature works. You come up with an idea, you got out into nature and test it, you bring your data back into the office and see what it reveals, and then you write it up to share with others. Each aspect of this is enjoyable to me, so I really see it as an opportunity rather than something I have to do. I suppose I am lucky that way.”
Did Christopher’s Father Robert want to see him in a banking career? “Not at all. He always encouraged me to pursue my own interests. However, when he bought Haut Bailly in 1998 he asked me to become a board member and I was delighted to as we had a shared passion for wine and the vines.” So, the Next Generation has essentially had on-the-job-training for quite awhile.
It was fascinating to hear about Professor Wilmers’ upbringing, but eventually our discussion turned to wine, specifically Haut-Bailly’s wine and the how and whys of its lofty status and quality.
Terroir, Mystique Turned Reality
Haut-Bailly is blessed with a great natural terroir that boasts considerable diversity. To be sure, the aforementioned proprietors recognized this truth and put their attention, time, and effort into the estate, all of which had a positive effect upon the evolution of the Château and its lovely wine.
In the estate’s vineyards lie some the most ancient vines in all of Bordeaux, probably exceeding 120 years of age! They are situated on a gravel hillside nearly 50-meters in height further demonstrating Haut-Bailly’s notorious diversity.
Good terroir means the proper nutrients from the earth confirmed by soil tests, good drainage, warm days and cool nights to allow the vines to rest and maintain sufficient acidity in the grapes. But there much more to it than that.
Professor Wilmers explains further, “Above and beyond topography and climate, the soil is the most subtle of the three components comprising Haut Bailly’s terroir. This consists of sand mixed with Pyrenees gravel from the Tertiary Period. The vineyard features a complex patchwork of plots with complementary characteristics – drainage, ability to restore warmth stored during the day or, on the contrary, cool, humid soil. Each of the four grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot is planted in soil that suits it perfectly.”
“Haut-Bailly’s subsoil is also quite unusual. It features shelly sand containing stones and fossil shells, some of which are displayed on the cellar walls. The vines find all the nourishment they need here – minerals and trace elements that are also the basis of aromas and freshness. Furthermore, the subsoil acts as a filter and ensures good aeration. In addition, it provides good water and mineral supply, while maintaining early moderate water stress conductive to good ripening. Its altitude, 28 to 48 meters, allows for excellent drainage and the plantation of the vines from north to south allows for ideal sun exposure in the morning and late afternoon.”
Viticultural and Oenological Practices
Now having an inkling of the history and terroir of Haut-Bailly, I wanted to delve into the third piece of the puzzle, the cultural practices of the winegrowing staff in viticulture, winemaking, and élevage. The practices in the vineyard and cellar by the present owner and staff, their obvious attention to detail, and their dedication give a nod to the past and demonstrate esteem for their special terroir.
Notwithstanding its superb terroir, Haut-Bailly does not rest complacent with its past achievements. A continuing collaboration with Bordeaux University assists in advancing the state of the art of oenology (winemaking) and viticulture. Affiliation in multiple research groups has produced palpable outcomes. The Château describes their philosophy as one of innovation and a desire to continuously raise the bar.
Dr. Wilmers elucidates, “Vineyard operations at Haut-Bailly are largely traditional, with an emphasis on close observation rather than completely relying on a technical approach. Chemical weed killers have never been used at Haut-Bailly and the grapes have always been harvested by hand. Respect for the environment means limiting the use of chemical sprays to a strict minimum, sustainable pest and disease control, and permanently adapting to each situation in the vineyard.”
“Maximum attention is paid to the vines’ everyday needs, doing only what needs to be done, and no more. Financial considerations are by no means the overriding factor – quality is. This is reflected in a number of choices: very severe pruning, green harvesting as necessary, and very relentless selection when it comes to blending.”
Haut-Bailly believes it differentiates itself by the ripeness and the extraction methods it employs, with the objective to reach purity and precision in its wines. The Château employs plot by plot vilification in 30 separate concrete vats so that each plot and vat can receive the attention it requires, and to allow blending precision at a later date. Fruit preservation and mild tannin extraction are assisted by temperature control and gentle remontages Finally, élevage lasts 16 to 18 months in French oak sourced from six separate coopers.
Dr. Wilmers, “Haut-Bailly’s unique personality can only come through if the grapes are perfectly ripe (not over ripe). It is therefore this ripeness, and a quest for balance, that constitute the château’s primary goals. Wine from each lot is regularly tasted all year long. The best lots are set aside for the grand vin. They must meet the strict criteria necessary for Haut-Bailly’s terroir to come through. The selection is ruthless. The final blends of our wines are made meticulously after a series of intense tasting sessions.”
“Château Haut-Bailly has a distinctive style that harmoniously combines classicism with modernity, elegance, finesse and softness with structure. The silky smoothness of the tannins echoes the elegant yet complex aromas. Château Haut-Bailly has great ageing potential and consistently wins praise from experts who agree that it offers complex pleasure and a richness that is neither aggressive nor ostentatious. These are natural qualities which Haut-Bailly is determined to keep.”
To properly utilize its fine terroir Haut-Bailly engages highly skilled and knowledgeable oenologists. Gabriel Vialard is the Technical Director, coming on in 2002. Included in the program in recent years were two former world-famous wine consultants, also professors at the University of Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud and Denis Dubourdieu. Jean Bernard Delmas of Chateau Haut Brion also provided consultation.
So far, I hadn’t heard much about the two grape varietals that are not often seen in Bordeaux blends today, Malbec and Carménère, both among Haut-Bailly’s old vines.
Christopher relates, “The Malbec and Carmenère, part of our old vines plot, are always used in the blend of our classified wine, Château Haut-Bailly. This single plot is unusually interwoven with six varieties of vine. These old vines bring complexity and are the DNA of Haut-Bailly.”
The blend is eight-plus percent each of Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, with Cabernet Sauvignon the anchor just eclipsing 58 percent.
Haut-Bailly also offers a rosé wine. Christopher explained, “Since 2004, Château Haut-Bailly has produced a ‘rosé de saignée’ when conditions have allowed. A few hours after maceration begins, pale pink juice is drawn out of vats housing our Cabernet Sauvignon, naturally increasing the concentration of the red wine. This rosé is fermented at low temperatures to bring out seductive, expressive fruit and floral aromas.”
Vitals – Haut-Bailly is situated just south of the city of Bordeaux in the Pessac-Léognan AOC, which is in turn located within the larger, left bank Graves AOC. The Château is designated Cru Classé in the 1959 Graves Classification, has 30 hectares under vine, and produces 80,000 bottles annually.
The Château Le Pape
Our conversation turned to Le Pape, a neighboring château less than a kilometer away purchased in 2012 by Bob Wilmers. Château Le Pape was founded by Pierre Bobineau in the late 18th Century. Bobineau, who had a marine business, began planting a vineyard and ultimately constructed the original château in 1805. In the latter half of the 20th Century, before the Wilmers entered, the Perrin family of neighboring Château Carbonnieux and Château de Beaucastel in the southern Rhône valley leased the use of the vineyard. Le Pape’s production is just north of 40,000 bottles annually.
The Wilmers Family have since fully renovated the entire property. In addition to producing wine, Le Pape offers guests spacious accommodations accessing a tranquil garden and terrace. An infinity pool and library lounge provide further appeal.
Does Christopher envision anything in Le Pape’s future along with the wine tourism and wine production?
“Le Pape’s wine is gaining year after year incredible depth and consistency and we want to keep improving. On the wine tourism side, we recently won the Golden award for best location to stay in Bordeaux and our aim is that our guests are always happy to stay here and for them to come back.”
Dr. Wilmers is speaking of the 15th Best Of Wine Tourism Night that took place in Bordeaux in 2018. There, the seven-hectare Le Pape property received the “Golden Best Of” award.
I found it curious that Merlot is in a majority in Le Pape’s blend, similar to Right Bank wines.
Christopher, “Following the purchase of the estate, a detailed soil survey was done to know the exact make-up of the soil and subsoil in each plot, and to check that grape varieties and rootstock were well matched. These results were completed by a resistivity survey that measured the clay content. The above analyses showed that the terroir consists largely of gravel and sand on clay, and that it had remarkable winegrowing potential. This is the reason why Le Pape’s vineyard was mainly planted with Merlot, as it would show its best potential within this terroir.”
Le Pape is currently involved in a replanting effort, to increase the density of vines per square hectare.
“Our replanting program for Le Pape will be completed by 2025”, related Christopher.
My acquaintance with the charming Château Haut-Bailly and its neighbor has been fascinating. Clearly, the Château’s elegant and exceedingly special wine will transition securely with the next generation! My biggest takeaways are its dedicated, thoughtful people, and the exceptional terroir the Château is sited in. I hope my readers’ journey has been as interesting as Christopher Wilmers commentary has been for me!