Shall I Compare Thee to Another Vintage? Drawing Parallels at Haut Bailly

by Chuck Hayward

Shall I Compare Thee to Another Vintage? Drawing Parallels at Haut Bailly

Post by Devon Magee | April 3rd, 2012

Château Haut Bailly

After five days of touring Bordeaux, it's clear that the burning question aimed at leading producers has been: “To what vintage would you compare your 2011s?” It’s only natural – after back-to-back “vintages of the century,” we are all looking for a foothold in 2011. The market cannot support a third otherworldly vintage here, yet early murmurs suggest that, while the industry is cautious to overtly praise '11, it is far from panning it. In fact, the earliest critic reports – from Parker and Suckling, who both just finished tasting here – are surprisingly optimistic.

So where does 2011 fit in a fifteen-year-plus string of vintages that has redefined Bordeaux with a relative average of warmer, dryer weather? Veronique Sanders invited us into her tasting room at Chateau Haut Bailly in Leognan yesterday evening to candidly discuss. Her family has been in charge of the Chateau since 1955, and she offered, in my opinion, the most poignant remarks of anyone about 2011.

Technical Director Gabriel Vialard and Veronique Sanders

To cut right to the chase, which she had no trouble doing, 2011 reminds her of 2000. All week, we heard safe parallels between 2011 and 2001, with some even claiming comparison to a combination of ‘01 and ‘08. Yet this was the first time I heard someone compare ’11 to ’00.

Tannin management has been the most important variable. In a vintage that shows the highest acid levels of the last ten years, yet lacks the ripeness of 2009 and 2010, coaxing fruit in 2011 has been a delicate balancing act. Those who extracted the most, squeezing body out of the grape skins and pips, also traded freshness for higher tannins.  And those who pushed ripeness levels on the vine traded fresh fruit notes for raisin-esque flavors. Yet the opposite is also true, and those who were too careful risked turning out wines built entirely on tart acid and under-ripe fruit.

The fresh summer in 2011, Veronique says, reminds her of 2000. Spring temperatures were warmer than normal, which pushed an early bud break, yet weather cooled during the heart of the growing season and, overall, the spring and summer were exceptionally dry.

As we have learned, dry summers typically benefit clay soils – those soils that can retain water – which we predominantly see in St. Estephe and Leognan on the Left Bank. And indeed, we saw higher levels of merlot – the Bordeaux variety that prefers clay – in the Left Bank wines. At Haut Bailly, Veronique used 50% merlot in her ’11 Grand Vin, a wine that is typically composed of over 65% cabernet.

“If we had 2011 ten years ago, people would consider it a fabulous vintage,” Veronique says as we taste the ’11. Indeed, Veronique appears to have deftly pulled off the balancing act – her ’11 displays fresh cranberry, cherry, and raspberry fruit, yet fine tannins and high acid, and is certainly one of the silkiest, freshest interpretations of the vintage that I have tasted.

Dinner Menu

The tannin levels are somewhere between 2009 and 2010, she explained, and, with high acid and a purity of fruit, she describes the 2011, overall, as a “2008-plus.”

We listened to winemakers discuss vintages all week, yet as the saying goes, ‘the proof is in the pudding,’ and we wonder aloud if we might taste the 2000 Haut Bailly. The most difficult part of tasting en primeur is to imagine where the wine will be in the future. If the 2000 and 2011 are as similar as Veronique suggested, we thought the 2000 might give us a clear indication of 2011’s potential.

Veronique smiled. The terrific success of Haut Bailly over the last 10 years is partly owed to her dynamism, and that evening she was predictably one step ahead of us. “Aha! Do not worry – you will taste the 2000 with dinner!”

We eagerly left the tasting room, and walked across the courtyard to the Chateau – one last chance to take in the late afternoon sun as it blanketed Haut Bailly’s east-facing plateau before disappearing behind the town of Leognan.

Sunset at Haut Bailly

Over dinner, we went in descending order from the ’03 and ’02, and finally, the ’00. My favorite – twist my arm, Veronique – was the 2000. The heightened acidity highlights the sweet fruit, and, like Veronique’s strawberry blond hair and blue eyes, adds an undeniable youthfulness. And the tannins? Integrated and silky, proof-positive of the alchemist that is aged Bordeaux.

If Veronique’s crystal ball is correct, then we have a lot to look forward to.