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America the Beautiful in Bordeaux

Posted: Jun 30, 2009 8:46am ET

A lot of the cool things that happen during VinExpo go on before, during and after the event, in châteaus throughout the region. A couple of days before the fair, I was lucky enough to spend some time at Château Haut-Bailly, the small jewel of a wine estate in the Pessac-Léognan district.

The 69 acres of vineyards, small château and various winery buildings are the property of American banker Robert Wilmers. He has been the owner since 1998. Bob and his wife, Elisabeth, who is French, have always loved Bordeaux and looked at various wineries in the region in the mid-1990s before purchasing Haut-Bailly.

Bob,  74, is an unassuming, soft-spoken man. He lives most of the year in Buffalo, NY, and spends most days working as the chairman of M & T Bank, as well as on the boards of a number of other US banks and European ones. I think he prefers to be considered a vintner now, or at least, his eyes certainly light up when you talk about wine and France with him. Conversations on finance and global economies were less energetic.

Looking back at the purchase, Bob doesn't attribute it to any brilliant business sense, or anything a hotshot banker might be able to pull off – especially in the good old days.

“I had no idea,” he said during dinner after a tasting of all most all the vintages under his ownership. “I was lucky on a number of levels. Not only did I get a great terroir, but my timing was very good, too. I didn’t really know about timing but it was. And finally, I was buying from Jean Sanders.”

I had met Jean Sanders in the early 1990s and had a number of dinners with him, as well as his granddaughter Veronique, who is now the general manager of Haut-Bailly. (Her husband runs Giscours and du Tertre in Margaux.) Jean Sanders was a nice man, but he always struck me as someone who just couldn’t fulfill his dream of making great wines because of family squabbles and a lack of money.  (Old story in Bordeaux.) In any case, he made his share of very good wines during his tenure but never anything truly outstanding.

Well, Wilmers has certainly changed that. He has given the team at Haut-Bailly carte blanche to make the best wines possible. And under his guidance, with Veronique and winemaker Gabriel Vialard, they seem to have everything down to a science. They also rely on the input of some outside consultants (including Jean Delmas, the former winemaker of Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion, and winemaker Denis Dubourdieu) who come in to give their opinions about the final blends of the first wine as well as the second one, La Parde de Haut-Bailly. That doesn’t hurt.

I am not going to go into detail here of the viticulture and winemaking at Haut-Bailly, but I will say that every detail seems to be taken care of. The key to the estate is the old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon, which encompasses slightly more than 10 acres. It is the heart and the soul of HB, and gives the wine its powerful, racy backbone of tannins as well as exotic fruit character – although, in general, I find the property’s wines subtle, agile and complex. The wines impress you with their depth of fruit and multi-layers of ultra-fine tannins. It takes a while to get to know them. It’s like reading a good novel instead of watching a movie.

Here are my notes for the Wilmers Haut-Baillys. The wines are usually mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder in Merlot. The Cabernet Franc planted in the estate seldom makes it into the first wine.  About 75,000 bottles of Haut-Bailly is made each vintage with another 75,000 of the second and third wine.

Haut-Bailly is on the fast track to being one of the top estates of Bordeaux.  And I like the idea that it’s American-owned, just like Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. We Americans obviously like our Graves! Or Pessac-Léognan!!

1998: I have been on the lookout for this for a long time. I recently drank it with a friend in Montreal in a restaurant, and it was subtle, rich and satisfying. I love the berry, chocolate, vanilla and spice aromas and flavors with just the right amount of meaty undertones. It’s full, soft and caressing. 93 points, non-blind.

1999:  This shows subtle meat, mushroom and red fruits with bark on the nose. Medium-bodied, with soft and silky tannins and a smoky, mushroom and berry aftertaste. Just coming around now. 90 points, non-blind.

2000: Loads going on here. Chocolate, dark berry and blueberries with hints of minerals. Full and dense with a tight structure. Ultra-fine tannins caress the palate. It’s long and complex. Subtle. Best after 2013. 93 points, non-blind.

2001: Dark chocolate with forest floor and blueberries on the nose. Full-bodied, with velvety and rich tannins and loads of ripe fruit. Yet it's subtle and super-refined. Hard not to drink but it's structured and very pretty. I like it better than the 2000. Many top Pessacs are better in 2001 than 2000. 94 points, non-blind.

2002: Sweet tobacco, with fresh cep and hints of blueberries and blackberries. Full bodied, with chewy, slightly gritty tannins. A little chewy. Hint of aggressive tannins. Turns a little austere. Needs drinking. 89 points, non-blind.

2003: Perfumed and very sweet fruit on the nose. Raspberries and blackberries. Blueberries, too. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins and rich and round mouthfeel. So fruity and delicious. Love the mouthfeel and richness. This is turning classic. Needs time. Dried stone character too. Best after 2012. 92 points, non-blind.

2004: The say that all the investment and changes at the estate came through here. Wonderful nose of flowers, blueberries, currants and cigar tobacco. Superb nose. Full-bodied, with super-racy tannins and a long, caressing fine. This is refined and very beautiful with loads of class. Give it time. Good value, I assume. Best after 2014. 94 points, non-blind.

2005: This is warmer and richer than the 2004 with much of the same stony, mineral and sweet tobacco character. Layered and complex. Full-bodied, with loads of fruit yet it's reserved and tight with super-ripe tannins but a subtle and long finish. Best after 2014. 95 points, non-blind.

2006: Black licorice, blueberry and mineral aromas with cool stones. Full-bodied, with sweet fruit and a subtle rose petal and berry character. Long and very fruity and subtle. Hard not to drink this. 91 points, non-blind.

2007: Very much like the 2006 but a little subdued. Blackberries and blueberries with hints of mulberries. Full-bodied, with bright, plummy fruit and fine tannins. Give it a few years in the bottle. Early drinker. 90 points, non-blind.

2008: Bright and vivid on the nose with blueberries, blackberries and flowers. Tobacco and minerals too. Full-bodied, with silky and chewy tannins and a long, pretty, fruit finish. Refined and delicious for a barrel sample. 90-94 points, non-blind.

I also drank the 1986, 1961 and 1947 during a dinner. And all were outstanding quality – 90 to 94 points. The 1947 was my favorite with a porty, spicy, berry and plummy character. It was velvety-textured with lots of dried fruit character. What a treat. 93 points, non-blind.

Jlpef@uol Com Br
Sao Paulo BR —  June 30, 2009 2:33pm ET
When should we drink 07's? (Give it a few years in the bottle. Early drinker)
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  June 30, 2009 3:30pm ET
Thanks James! I have a '98, should I wait? I've had the 2005 - what a phenomenon!! Decanted it for 3 hours and was blown away. I'm waiting another 10 years to open my second bottle of the '05.
Kevin Callahan
Montreal, QC —  June 30, 2009 4:04pm ET
What!? In Montreal with no notice given to your Forum brothers? ;-)Enjoyed the notes on the '98. I look forward to trying this one as well.
James Suckling
 —  July 1, 2009 12:17am ET
The top 2007s are not released yet. But I would think 2011 to 2014 will make sense for most.

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