Bordeaux wines from Pessac-Leognon share a unique style, often possessing a kind of smoky earthiness that brings a fascinating dynamic to the fruit and oak. The result is a favorite style of mine.
Established in 17th century, Chateau Haut-Bailly’s hundred-year-old vines of Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere embody the history of both the vineyard and the region. The sandy gravel and prehistoric fossil shells are still under your feet and remain prominent expressions of the wine itself; and while Bordeaux’s famous search for the greatest blend also remains, it is Haut-Bailly’s commitment to tradition that seems even more pronounced. In a market that has come under significant pressure from Chinese market demand, this is no small accomplishment.
To my mind and palate these are some of the reasons why Haut-Bailly wines always stand out at Bordeaux tastings. They distance themselves not for being the most powerful, nor most flashy. Rather, it is the balance of elegance and complexity – something that was often referred to as “feminine” during my trip around France – that comes through with so much poise that you sense a strong personality behind their making. A 2006 I encountered in early 2012 had such an incredible bouquet that I had a hard time remembering my selection from the other 80+ Bordeaux bottles that day, and drew me to visit Haut-Bailly the following harvest.
It was during my visit that I was able to identify the personality behind the wine. Managing Director Veronique Sanders is the grand-daughter of Daniel Sanders, one of the great wine merchants of Bordeaux. Inspired by the 1945 vintage, he ultimately bought the estate in 1955 and launched a program to restore Haut-Bailly to the level of quality that it had enjoyed before the war and subsequent depression. In 1998, American banker Robert Wilmers and his wife Elizabeth entered the picture and continued investing in the agenda that Daniel’s Haut-Bailly had become known for. After Daniel retired, his grand-daughter Veronique was brought in as Managing Director and, by all accounts, the quality of wine has leapt tremendously ever since. Critics such as Robert Parker have celebrated Haut-Bailly wines as some of the finest from the Grave appellation, amongst such peers as Haut-Brion and Smith-Haut-Lafite. Equally inspiring to me, Veronique is one of very few women in such a position, let alone responsible for producing some of the greatest wines in the world. She and her team graciously received us and shared her thoughts:
MP: How has the experience of growing up as a woman in a top-growth Bordeaux chateau shaped your views of the wine business?
Veronique: It forged my character! It was also a fabulous privilege to be both grounded in a history, tradition and culture while also allowed to travel, explore and discover what is happening in the world…
MP: How has being deeply involved in chateau operations and traveling the world shaped your views of the wine business?
Veronique: It’s a challenge to bring together all the details to create a great wine every year that is true to its terroir and the vintage. Traveling the world extensively is another part of the business and it is the key to a better understanding of cultures, aspirations and markets. We have the great opportunity to meet often fascinating people coming from very different fields who love everything, including life…
MP: How do you think about the Asian wine market?
Veronique: Haut-Bailly has been traveling in Asia for a long time now, and we have been very fortunate to see the markets and the number of wine lovers increase over the years. Each wine market is different and unique in its own way. Some have been developing for years; others are now quickly catching up. We try to travel to as many cities as possible to visit our friends and to see how their markets are changing. We are there to share a part of Haut-Bailly, but even more importantly we are there to learn about their culture and to understand their vision of wine, gastronomy and culture.
Last year, Haut-Bailly was selected to be among the Magical 20 presented by Robert Parker at Wine Future Hong Kong. This list gathers wines which he estimates to be of first growth quality, and which will have a great future in Asia. We are honored to be a part of this group and we have seen its importance in the Asian wine markets. We, like many others, are beginning to see the maturity in the Asian and specifically the Chinese market as consumer’s vision of top wines is expanding.
Asian markets import a growing share of our wines; however it’s difficult for us to evaluate the exact number of bottles traveling east as we sell through the Place de Bordeaux. For us, visiting the countries and meeting our partners – as we do in Europe and in America – remains a priority as well as welcoming wine lovers here at the estate.
MP: How do you think about the Asian wine industry?
Veronique: It seems as though everyone is rushing to get their piece of the Asian pie, and in many ways there is room for everyone. Perhaps foreign producers should not be too concerned with the competition in Asia coming from their neighbors, but rather the domestic production that is taking off at an incredible rate. In China we are seeing more and more vines planted each year, with the savoir faire of both Europe and Asia. The borders of the wine world will change in the coming decade, and it will be interesting to see who will become the leaders and the trendsetters for the next generation of wine producers and buyers.
MP: Many consumers tend to relate Burgundy with the concept of terroir, and Bordeaux with the chateau / winemaker’s style. What’s missing here?
Veronique: Terroir is just as important in Bordeaux as it is in Burgundy! A great wine comes from the union of topography, a microclimate, soils and sub soils with the intervention of human savoir faire. In Burgundy, the unique varietal is Pinot Noir, so the only differences between wines come from the differences in their terroirs. In Bordeaux, the style of a wine depends on multiple factors including the blend, meaning how each chateau finds its harmony with its own grape varietals. But the winemaker is as important in Bordeaux as it is in Burgundy!
MP: Hugh Johnson likes to use this quote from Maurice Healy: “Graves and Medoc wines, are like matt and glossy prints of the same photograph”. What are the discussions between you and your husband (Alexander Van Beek, who manages Chateau Giscours and Chateau du Tertre in Medoc) concerning wine styles from these two sub-regions?
Veronique: The Graves and the Medoc could be related to the Ying and the Yang in life. You can’t have one without the other, and you need both to have the full picture of Bordeaux wines. Regarding discussions with my husband, we keep learning from each other!
MP: What makes a wine a Haut-Bailly wine? Generally speaking, what are the progression of characteristics they take on as they age?
Veronique: 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 offers complex pleasure plus a richness that is neither aggressive nor ostentatious. These are natural qualities which Haut-Bailly is determined to keep.
MP: In your opinion, what are the greatest vintages in the past 20 years for Haut-Bailly?
Veronique:2009 and 2010 are two fabulous vintages! They are the great wines that we dream of creating each year and those that remind us of the mythical vintages of the 20th century, the wines from 1900, 1918 or 1945. They show great balance and beautiful ageing potential. Plus I would include the 2008 vintage, which I love. It is very feminine and elegant, with the silky tannins that define the wines of Haut-Bailly.
MP: Looking back, what are the top three lessons you’ve learned?
1. Start from scratch every year; never rest on your laurels.
2. Always be looking towards the future. Wine can be artisanal and avant-gardist at the same time: rooted in tradition, but always anticipating the next change and challenging the norm. However never follow fashion, keep your style.
3. Wine is an amazing gateway that can link different civilizations and cultures.
MP: Looking ahead, how do you imagine your industry evolving?
Veronique: Technically it is always evolving – we are striving for incredible levels of precision.
The sharing of information is constant and the consumer will become more and more informed and involved.
Consistency will be the key to continue being a reference.
MP: How do you think about the Asian palate?
Veronique: There is not just one Asian palate just as there is not one Asian cuisine. As I travel I see the richness and the diversity in the spices, preparation and ingredients in the dishes throughout Asia. For me the Asian palate shares something with the French palate. It is constantly curious, striving for something new while honoring past methods and recipes. There is a constant search for quality and artisanal craftsmanship. In the end we are both cultures that enjoy good food with good friends and often that includes good wine.
MP: For those who are new to wine in Asia, what’s your advice on navigating the huge wine world?
Veronique: Read, taste and trust what you like.
MP: How do you spend a Sunday off?
Veronique: For me a perfect Sunday is spent with family and friends, sharing good meals and good stories. I also love the opportunity to discover new wine regions, their wines, their traditions and their personalities!