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A visit to Chateau Haut-Bailly

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"Look at this terroir!" I exclaim, having just tasted the 2012 Château Haut-Bailly and its 'petite' sibling, the 2012 La Parde Haut-Bailly during a visit to  the chateau during the week of En Primeur. As you can see in the picture above, the  soil consists of sand mixed with the gravel that gives the Graves appellation its name.

Earlier that week, I had attended a tasting of wines from the Graves appellation organized for journalists from the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. The UGCB divides journalists into several small groups, with two of them composed of journalists who choose to taste wine completely blind. I was one of the “blind” tasting groups – we only receive the names of the chateaux after the conclusion of the tasting.

This year, the tasting of wines from Graves and Pessac-Leognan was held at the Chateau LaTour-Martillac on Wednesday … all absolutely fabulous wines, with Chateau Haut-Bailly receiving one of my top scores in a very competitive landscape! My notes read “great sense of terroir, violet floral overtones, very concentrated ripe fruit that can mature for decades to come.”

At any rate, I am here at the Chateau right now “officially” tasting the 2012 vintage of Chateau Haut-Bailly’s Grand Vin and the “Le Parde Haut-Bailly.” As it is a busy time, we are tasting not in the glitzy tasting room but in the very cool gift shop, that offers fun things you rarely find in the US, such as straw picnic boxes with special partitions for wine bottles and glasses, and other delights.

The 2012 Grand Vin Chateau Haut-Bailly is opened and poured … very vibrant and well concentrated, with firm tannins and a sleek yet plush structure and a long finish of concentrated ripe blackberries. The blend this year is 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 Merlot, a field blend from the very best plots including very old vines. It tastes delicious now, yet the concentration of ripe fruit and subtle oak is such that it is meant for long term aging and is best drunk (in my opinion) from 2017 on.

The 2008 Grand Vin Chateau Haut-BaillyI sampled was fabulous - ready to drink and can go on for 20 more years at the very least with its elegant firm tannins, ripe blackberry fruit, and Christmas spice (cloves, cinnamon) like sparkling jewels studded into the luscious texture of the wine.

In terms of viticulture and winemaking, the chateau maintains that nothing is too good for the ‘first wine’ – be it vigorous pruning, crop thinning when necessary, and picking the entire harvest by hand. Once the grapes are picked, they are subjected to the strictest sorting controls, first in the vineyard, next in the winery before being de-stemmed, and finally on a vibrating table following de-stemming. Thermo-regulated vats of different capacities (30, 60, 90, 120 or 180 hecto-liters) ensure that grapes grown in different parts of the vineyard and picked on separate days are kept separate from the time they are picked until vinification is completed.

Cement tanks are used for winemaking and the assemblage and bottling is done in stainless steel tanks. Alcoholic fermentation lasts eight to ten days and is followed by maceration. This lasts about three weeks during which time the wine is never overheated. Malolactic fermentation takes place in the barrel and the assemblage or blending of the wine only takes place at the conclusion of a number of tastings.

The 2012 La Parde Haut-Bailly is vinified in the exact same way as Château Haut-Bailly. The difference is made when the chateaux decides of the blend (usually more Merlot, as these wines are approachable sooner (3 to 5 years). The La Parde is aged in 15% new oak (as opposed to the Grand Vin’s 50% of new oak) and has a unique style and personality all its own.

I found the Le Parde delicious and ready to drink even now with its ripe plums, black tar, and black licorice - it's 56 Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 Merlot, and 4 Cabernet Franc.

Historically, Haut-Bailly was a place of vines since the Middle age but it is the Parisian banker Firmin Le Bailly who founded the estate of 30 hectares in 1630. In 1872, the property was purchased by Alcide Bellot des Minières, a man of prodigious energy, who was fascinated by science and paid great attention to new viticultural techniques. Thanks to his efforts Haut-Bailly reached first-growth price-levels and commanded such prices until the 1940's.

In 1955 Haut-Bailly was acquired by Daniel Sanders, a Belgian wine merchant from Barsac (Gironde). Although the estate was suffering from years of neglect and the vineyard was reduced to 10 hectares (25 acres) Sanders was convinced of its potential and set about the enormous task of renovating the property. In 1979, his son, Jean, took over the management of the vineyard and continued to improve the reputation and prestige of the wine.

Véronique Sanders, the general manager, is the great granddaughter of Daniel Sanders and granddaughter of Jean Sanders.

Since 1998 when Robert Wilmers purchased the estate, significant funds have been dedicated to upgrading the material, spending more time on each single thing. All of the wine-making equipment now meets the highest technical standards. Three cellars have been built to accommodate the wood-aging process and the two vat houses have been reconfigured to eliminate any unnecessary handling of the grapes during the wine-making process.

A fabulous visit and one of the best wines in the region.

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