HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Wine Columns

Wine Reviews

WineReviewOnline on Twitter

Critics Challenge

Distillers Challenge

San Diego Challenge

Sommelier Challenge


Winemaker Challenge

WineReviewOnline on Facebook

WineReviewOnline on Instagram

Château Haut-Bailly 25-Year Vertical from Magnum Bottles
By Panos Kakaviatos
Mar 13, 2024
Printable Version
Email this Article

You know a Bordeaux producer is worthy when their second wine at nearly 20 years old is selected among the top in a blind tasting that included three Ridge Monte Bellos (1996, 2004, 2007), two Château Pontet Canets (2001, 2010), Château Brane Cantenac 1986, Château Beychevelle 1964, and Château Rauzan Ségla 2005.

In a blind tasting of eleven “Bordeaux blend” wines – including wines that could be from around the world, so long as they have Bordeaux grapes – La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2006, the second wine of Château Haut-Bailly, garnered five votes from six tasters (working “blind”) as one of their top three favorites.  The tasting for wine experts working either as educators or in the wine trade took place on 25 February this year at the members-only Wine Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

The tasting reminded me of just how great Château Haut-Bailly in the Graves region of Bordeaux is.  A Cru Classé (classified growth) since Graves wines were ranked some 70 years ago, it later became part of the northern Graves appellation Pessac-Léognan, established in 1987, and which includes all Graves’ classified estates.  The appellation is so named because these top estates are concentrated around the two towns of Pessac, home of Château Haut-Brion, among others, and Léognan, close to where Haut-Bailly is located, among others.

Thanks to the generosity of Haut-Bailly, I have participated in several verticals at the estate over the last two decades.  The most comprehensive since the COVID pandemic – all in magnum format bottles – took place last spring with 25 vintages to mark 25 years since the Wilmers family acquired the château.  Especially from magnum bottles, one can understand why some recent vintages may seem somewhat closed these days, and that includes 2014 and 2016.  It was fascinating to experience such history in bottle – and to notice a trend towards a “larger scale” in the wines in more recent vintages, albeit with suave opulence and precision.

Tasting Notes:

Top Vintages to Drink Today or Cellar:  2015, 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2000, 1998

Top Vintages to Cellar:  2022, 2020, 2019, 2016, 2010, 2005

Very Good Vintages to Enjoy or Cellar:  2018, 2017, 2014, 2011, 2001, 1999

Rather Underwhelming Vintages:  2021, 2013, 2007, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001

The 2022 is a superlative vintage on a grand scale.  Sure, it tasted like a barrel sample, having aged in 50% new oak, but the bouquet from this blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and the rest Cabernet Franc ranges from blood red orange and pomegranate to wet stone and violets.  The palate displays tannic finesse with subtle, yet certain depth, and a layered feel, leading to a long, fresh finish, echoing underlying power.  The new, protective – and cold – cellar space is ideal for such vintages, as the 2022 has a high 3.92 pH.  One can also note that many of the older vines used have such deep roots (at least 50 years old) that they resisted the high heat of the vintage.  For now, an optimistic 97 points.

One of the best performing red wines from the very average 2021 vintage, this blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot (with some Cabernet Franc) conveys red fruit, tobacco leaf and subtle oak-derived aromatics.  A medium-bodied wines sans pretention, it has character and charm, and is worthy for shorter-term drinking.  92

The Haut-Bailly 2020 fulfills its promise from barrel with refinement and depth, well balanced and layered, leading to a long and fresh fruit finish.  The blend of 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, and 3% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot reflects natural concentration without being heavy handed.  A high tannic index – an IPT of 85 – matches that of 2010, but the difference in winemaking and more careful aging has increased finesse. While fermentation temperatures reached 30°C in 2010, they did not surpass 24° in 2020.  Barrel aging ten meters underground has ensured coolness.  At 14.3% alcohol, with a very high pH of 3.9, ensuring coolness at all stages has become more important than ever.  By comparison, even if the 2018 has a slightly lower pH at 3.8, the 2020 seems fresher to me, with finer tannin, indicating a slower evolutionary track.  97

Better than the 2018, even if similar harvesting dates, because more precise, the 2019 vintage blends 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 4% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  It displays power and depth, and a palate dominated more by Cabernet Sauvignon graphite, with fruit ranging from red and brambly to succulent blackberry.  The mouth-coating tannins are suave, leading to a long finish with lift.  I prefer the 2020 a bit more, for a slightly cooler feel.  96

Blending 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 5% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, the 2018 conveys tannic finesse with opulence, but it lacks the extra dimension of freshness that makes a vintage like 2016 (or 2020) more special.  But the 2020-2019-2018 trio could all use more cellaring, so we can revisit in, say, 10 years.  95

If you want pleasant, high-end wine to enjoy now, look no further than the 2017 vintage, whose blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 4% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc is floral and fruit driven, with a juicy mid-palate beckoning further drinking.  It was aged in 50% new oak, and I recall it as one of the most successful Bordeaux reds from barrel, with a scoring range between 93-95 points.  While on a faster evolutionary track than both the 2016 and the 2014, 2017 here truly is an underrated vintage.  The 2017 is ideal to enjoy today while waiting for such other vintages to mature in your cellar. Medium finish.  94

Some vintages are destined for greatness, which is the case for Haut-Bailly 2016.  When I tasted it back in 2019, it impressed me with its cool blueberry fruit, tobacco leaf and wet stone.  During the vertical last Spring, this deeply colored wine with plenty of ripe (cool) fruit and power – a blend of 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc – is in a rather closed phase, especially from magnum, requiring five years more cellaring. Give it a decade, and it will blossom into a beauty.  Not yet ready to drink, but:  98

A more recent vintage to enjoy today however is the 2015, a growing season from which the wines of many estates in Bordeaux came across as a bit alcoholic...but not so here.  At first, a strict aspect, but after about 30 minutes time in glass, one senses a very cassis focused, very Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine.  Time in glass also brings about such pristine “breed” to the taster, as if we enter a realm of “high art.”  The texture is not so much silky as nuanced, and intriguing.  There is freshness and depth, but the effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Cooler blue fruit elegance on the finish – exceptional for the vintage – with much lift, but also subtle density, which means that this will age well.  It reminds me of the 2005 in a similar stage of evolution.  96

Like the 2016, the 2014 at this stage seems closed. In this blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon and 41% Merlot, one detects finesse, tannic linearity and purity, fresh fruit, and palate tension, but give it another three to four years of cellaring to reveal the charms that I recall from barrel.  While it lacks the opulence of the 2012 (or the 2015) and the sublime precision of the 2016, cellaring will make it more cohesive.  93 points, for now.

Another vintage to enjoy now is the 2012.  Blending 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, it is both opulent and robust, with a sumptuously creamy mid palate supported by impressive structure.  The finish is longer than expected from this vintage when other 2012s have noticeably short finishes despite impressive openings.  Not so at Château Haut-Bailly.  One word sums it up: “Beautiful.”  Harvested between 27 September and 15 October.  Emphatically:  96

While some 2011s are disappointing for being too tannic and linear without enough charm, others – like Haut-Bailly – are wonderful.  The linearity of tannin accentuated by finesse, shows the extent to which this estate has been improving tannin management.  The estate notes in its guide to the 2011 that the precision reflects “the seal of Haut-Bailly.”  Harvested over a three-week period, from 9-29 September, the grapes used proved nearly a 50-50 split between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Very good wine.  94+

Among earlier yet still very young-tasting vintages the stupendous 2005 and 2010 come to mind, as one might expect.  Both impressed me mightily for their structure, ripe fruit, and elegance.  I recall tasting the 2005 10 years before, remarking such amazing fruit purity – cassis, red cherry – along with finely grained tannin, brightness, and lift.  Similarly, the 2010 impresses but with more depth and power.  Both get 97 points, but they need more time, especially from magnum bottles.  And they may get higher scores over time!

For older vintages, the 2009 – with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc – proved both subtle and noble, with ripe fruit matched by powdered cocoa, truffle, and chocolate. I  have always enjoyed this wine: from barrel, at another vertical some 10 years ago and now.  The palate displays such character and poise as a top wine of the vintage.  Clocking in at 13.5% alcohol, the wine was made from grapes picked between 15 September and 14 October.  97 points – do not hesitate!

And do you know what?  The 2008 is just as great!  Château Haut-Bailly in this vintage reveals subtle power, concentration, and nuance, both juicy and svelte in tannic expression, leading to a long finish and leaving a cooler expression than the 2009, with which it will be fascinating to compare over the next 5 to 15 years.  It is also interesting to note how alcohol levels have increased more recently.  Back in 2008, the 13% was the highest level since the 2005!  Whatever the level, balance is au rendezvous in this blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, made from grapes picked between 25 September and 23 October.  97

Sadly the 2007 revealed hard tannins leaving the impression of a standoffish wine, lacking warmth.  What was once a charming wine in the early 2010s has stiffened up.

By contrast, do not hesitate with the 2006, a creamy wine superior to the 2004, for example, with impressive body and finesse, layered texture, with touches of chocolate. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot.  Another month-long harvest, from 13 September to 15 October.  95

Now the 2004, which I own, proved underwhelming if OK.  It blends 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc, exuding fine black tea leaf, red fruit and certainly some underlying tannic power.  But it lacks the charm of higher scoring wines in this vertical.  While it packs some tannic punch, it also seems a touch underripe, and this sensation has grown over time.  92

I recall having had the 2003 several times since its release, and, somewhat like the 2002 albeit for different reasons, the wine has weakened over the years.  That torrid vintage, which favored cooler soils further north on the Left Bank, such as Saint Julien or Saint Estèphe, was not so easy for Pessac-Léognan and here we have proof.  The estate remains classic in profile here, and one does not sense heat or alcohol – indeed it shows 12.5 on the label – but it lacks the depth and length one expects from the estate’s pedigree, as much as I enjoyed its dark fruit, burgeoning earthy and leather aspects.  91

After an initial corked bottle of the 2002 vintage, the second proved better for a vintage that reflects a disastrous August.  In many ways the opposite of 2003: too much rain and cool weather in August 2002.  Haut-Bailly handled the vintage well, but it is not superlative, either, again lacking the mid-palate depth and length when compared to superior vintages.  But at nearly 20 years in bottle, it was good, with red fruit, herbaceous aspects, and high acidity.  Enjoy with steak.  92

A slight question mark for the 2001, which is considered an excellent vintage in the Graves.  Maybe it was the bottle, but the tannins seemed a bit hard for the vintage, and I found myself enjoying the 1999, for example, much more.  This blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot is good, mind you, with blackcurrant, brambly red fruit, leather, and wet earth tertiary development, along with cedar and tobacco aromas and flavors on the medium bodied palate.  But it also displays slightly drying tannins that I did not get, for example, from the 1999 – the other bookend to the more famous 2000 vintage.  92

The millennial vintage 2000 has long been a (Older School) favorite, and it did not disappoint here, with understated fruit driven opulence, tertiary notes of leather, baked fruit, and some wet earth.  While not as deep or as precise as later star vintages, including 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2020, the suave tannin recalls a lighter, more discreet era.  94

Do not miss the excellent 1999, whose truffle notes combined with (fresh) earthy elegance and understated charm exude a wine of much finesse, but I would drink up sooner than later, especially as the bottle I evaluated was a magnum.  93

Of the 1998-1999-2000 trio, I most enjoyed the 1998.  From barrel, Robert Parker gave this blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon and 41% Merlot scores in the high 80s, which, at the time, were not considered so bad, but the wine certainly was not a “Parker darling”.  This is an Older School era, which succeeds with supple and juicy plum and cassis fruit, nuance, and elegance, with cedar and tobacco leaf and tannic finesse ending with a long and subtle finish.  94+

*          *          *

Historical Perspectives

Long before the 1955 classification of Graves wines, Château Haut-Bailly as we know it today began to take shape when the Goyanèche and then the Daitze family acquired and unified the best vine growing plots in the early 16th century.  The estate remained in the Daitze Family until 1630, when wealthy Parisian bankers (and lovers of Graves wines) Firmin Le Bailly and Nicolas de Leuvarde purchased gave birth to its current name. 

Following substantial investments, the property remained in the Bailly family until 1736, when Irishman Thomas Barton (famous for the Médoc’s Saint Julien estates Langoa and Léoville) took the helm.  Thanks to his network, he spread word about the estate’s quality when French “claret” was beginning to rise to stardom in England and Ireland, led by the famous Château Haut-Brion.

I have been lucky to have spent two nights at the beautiful stone chateau building, which was constructed after Alcide Bellot des Minières acquired the estate in 1872.  Well-lit and equipped with a large kitchen fireplace, I recall first meeting director Véronique Sanders for lunch 20 years ago over a wonderful lunch of entrecôte Bordelaise roasted over sarments de vigne in that fireplace.  A grand hall connects the entrance to the rear patio, creating a cozy yet impressive space.  But Alcide Bellot des Minières also pioneered precise viticulture, becoming a legend in Bordeaux, widely known as the “King of Vintners.”  Thanks to his drive, the estate experienced a golden age, commanding the same prices as Médoc First Growths Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion.

But, as with other Bordeaux estates, there are the hauts et les bas: Château Haut-Bailly later experienced instability, changing hands until 1955.  Despite an uncertain era, it was counted as a Cru Classé de Graves in the 1953 classification.  When Belgian negociant Daniel Sanders bought it in 1955, he and son Jean redid the vineyard, renovated the winery, and brought back selection to the harvests, giving the wine a unique style and reputation that restored the former glory.

The 25-vintage vertical marked the July 1998 acquisition of Château Haut-Bailly by American Robert G. Wilmers, chair and CEO of the M&T Bank based in Buffalo, New York.  I had met him on occasion. He always impressed people with passion, intelligence, and a sense of humor.

A lifelong lover of Bordeaux, Bob Wilmers made important strategic decisions during his tenure, ensuring that Haut-Bailly followed a path of progression and continuity whilst remaining respectful of its heritage.  He at first asked Jean Sanders to stay on board, and then Véronique Sanders, fourth generation, to serve as general manager, overseeing a far-reaching investment program to modernize the vineyards, cellars, offices, and château itself.

For Bob and his wife Elisabeth, Haut-Bailly was not just a financial investment, it was a joint passion.  Following his passing in December 2017, his family took over and, together with the management team, are committed to continuing his work with the same spirit and energy as over the past 20 years.  Recently initiated and future projects will be pursued.  Indeed, the Wilmers family support the chateau’s constant progression with heart and soul, with the latest major example being Haut-Bailly’s new winery.  When I saw how rapidly the team at Haut-Bailly was able to manage the challenging 2023 harvest, it was clear to me how the winery is primarily a functional space in which manager Gabriel Vialard and his team have been able to refine their skills.  Architect Daniel Romeo has devised natural spatial impression techniques and understated aesthetics that disguise complex flows of people, materials, and energy, to make it look like part of the landscape, weaving together that functionality with aesthetics.

More columns:     Columns
Wine reviews:      Reviews