THE LEGENDARY PRE-PHYLLOXERA VINES OF HAUT-BAILLY
Veronique SANDERS and Gabriel VIALARD
Chateau Haut-Bailly's treasure trove of pre-phylloxera old vines are 80, 90, even 100 years. The four hectares of ancients comprise Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
General Manager Veronique Sanders informed that in 1998, Haut-Bailly did a separate barrel of wine entirely from the old vines. More interestingly, she went on to say that all their tastings showed that blending the old with the younger vines always produced the best wine.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century (until 1940), thanks to the visionary genius and tireless energy of Alcide Bellot des Minieres, prices for Haut-Bailly rose to a level alongside those of the Medoc First Growths: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion.
At Haut-Bailly, there are vines reputed to have never been affected by phylloxera, the 19th Century scourge that devastated the vineyards of Europe. What is even more incredible — but logical in a sense — is that these grape plants from a lost era of European viticulture comprise not one, nor two, but a mix of varietals that was then quintessential Bordeaux. I say "logical" because the phylloxera pest attacks the root system of the vines. Therefore, if the soil is resistant (sand being one of the best), it does not really matter what varietal/s you sink in it.
Chateau Haut-Bailly's treasure trove of pre-phylloxera old vines are 80, 90, even 100 years. They were planted to proportions carefully calculated in relation to the nature of the soil so as to produce the best possible wine at Haut-Bailly. These are Cabernet Franc (1/12), Carmenère (1/12), Merlot (1/12), Malbec (1/12), Petit Verdot (1/12), and Cabernet Sauvignon (7/12). Of the total 28 hectares of vineyard in one uninterrupted, contiguous piece, these ancients make up around four hectares.
A "KING OF WINES"
"In 1872, Alcide Bellot DES MINIERES bought Haut-Bailly. A man with a passionate interest in using scientific methods to improve viticulture, des Minières was a legendary figure, known to his contemporaries as the "King of Wines". He was very much opposed to grafting his delicate French vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks, something that was being done in other Bordeaux vineyards to save them from the phylloxera pest.
"Des Minieres believed that to graft American resistant rootstocks would result in wines of lesser quality and, although American graft stock was later plant, Haut-Bailly still has fifteen percent of its old vines dating from the pre-phylloxera period," informed General Manager Veronique SANDERS.
Sanders (who is married to Alexander VAN BEEK of Chateaux Giscours and Du Tertre), is not only intimately involved with the Pessac-Leognan property as its general manager but also belongs to the family who, in 1998, sold it to the present owner, an American banker named Robert WILMERS (whose wife, Elisabeth, is French).
The vineyard of Haut-Bailly are planted to 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. A Grand Cru Classe under the 1959 Classification of the Graves, Haut-Bailly is special, and almost unique, in that of the great estates of the Graves and Pessac-Leognan (the prestigious "Pessac-Leognan" appellation was created in 1987), Haut-Bailly produces no white but only specializes in red wine.
The soil is sand and gravel over a subsoil of sandstone mixed with the remains of pre-historic fossil shells. The vineyard is one single piece of land and sits on a high ridge overlooking a small winding road. The sloping terrain provides excellent, natural drainage so very important to producing great wine.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century (until 1940), thanks to the visionary genius and tireless energy of Alcide Bellot des Minières, prices for Haut-Bailly rose to a level alongside those of the Medoc First Growths: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion.
Although no longer fetching the same prices of the First Growths, the Sanders family, who arrived at the chateau in 1955, has done exemplary work to restore the status of Haut-Bailly as one of the finest wines of the Graves (Jean Sanders had to sell in 1998 because his two sisters wanted to realize their share of the estate). By all account, present owner Robert Wilmers has spared no expense to ensure Haut-Bailly stays at the top. It's not, I think, too far-fetched to add that Veronique Sanders' all-important permanent presence there has all but ensured Haut-Bailly's high reputation.
TASTING THE ANCIENTS
Tasting wines produced from pre-phylloxera ungrafted vines is not, for me nor many other wine writers, a new experience. Australia provides many examples. Henschke Hill of Grace vineyard, that parcel they call the "Grandfathers", are vines about 125 years old. That said, tasting vines as old as 80, 90, even 100 years in Europe is rare indeed. In Bordeaux, I can't think of anywhere else except perhaps Chateau Trotte Vieille in Saint-Emilion although their parcel may not be so old and, when last tasted in April 2006, not so impressive. When I visited on 10th January 2007, Chateau Haut-Bailly was also conducting one of their regular blending sessions. I was therefore able to taste Merlot from 30- and 50-year old vines. The former possessed scented blue fruits and smoky notes. Medium-bodied, it was fresh and very elegant. As for the half-century Merlot vines, it was much more closed on the nose but quite rich on the palate. The fruit and tannins were longer and the structure more pronounced. Following this, I tasted a blend from those 100-year old vines, of mixed varieties but mostly Merlot, that were the earliest to ripen. This was incredibly rich and fresh at the same time. And very, very long indeed. We then moved to a Cabernet Sauvignon from 40-year old vines. Quite rich but a touch not so ripe, the structure and grip were very evident. Following this was a blend from 100-year old vines that was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins were very strong and the structure super dominant. The wine was dry and soft at the same time. Veronique Sanders informed that with the old vines, you never get more than six bunches of grapes. This would translate to about 60 hectolitres per hectare. The average yield though, with the ancient vines, is about 45 hectolitres per hectare. Veronique Sanders informed that in 1998, Haut-Bailly did a separate barrel of wine entirely from the old vines. More interestingly, she went on to say that all their tastings showed that blending the old with the younger vines always produced the best wine. The sum total has always been greater than its individual parts. No wonder that Chateau Haut-Bailly is such a harmonious, elegant, refined and yet, intense wine.