Dinner at Château Haut-Bailly

Many insiders in Bordeaux claim that the best private chef in all of Bordeaux is among the kitchen staff at Château Haut-Bailly in Pessac-Leognan. I needed to make a trek there for a number of reasons. First of all, proprietor Robert Wilmers is the owner of M&T Bank, where I've been banking long before I ever met him. I want to be very transparent. I have banked at First Nation Bank for 25 years prior to it being acquired by Robert Wilmers and his Buffalo based M&T bank. While I rarely accept invitations for dinner at any wine-making estate, I did because it seemed absurdly strict to refuse, simply wanting to meet with him because his bank had acquired the bank with which I have long done business. And of course there is the perfect rating for the 2009 Haut-Bailly, which showed remarkably this tasting after three hours in a decanter. Readers who have a chance to taste that wine will fully comprehend why it justifies a perfect score. Also, the winemaker, Véronique Sanders, is one of the most incredibly intelligent, open-minded and progressive winemakers of any in France, or elsewhere. And finally, I felt that the rare opportunity to experience and report on ex-Château, WWI and 1947 bottles of Haut-Bailly would be of great value for readers, even in the more casual context of a Hedonist’s Gazette article.

On a beautiful summer evening we had a stunning meal absolutely to die for. The calves sweetbreads were tender and flavorful, followed by a stunning rack of lamb with mushrooms - the rare but always delicious chanterelles. However, it was the wines that jumped out at this event. It was hard not to be impressed with the generosity and the quality of everything we had.

The white Burgundy, a 2008 Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes, was certainly good enough, but it was really blown away on the table by the gorgeous 2005 Clos Sainte Hune Riesling from Alsace, which had great lemon-lime notes, minerality, and that Alsacian goût de pétrole.

We then moved onto a fabulous series from Haut-Bailly. The 2006 is somewhat of a sleeper of the vintage, but the 2005 is really the first true great wine Robert Wilmers and Véronique Sanders crafted after Wilmers' acquisition of the property. A stunningly young wine with notes of subtle barbecue smoke, blackcurrant, lead pencil shavings and very intense flavors, at the same time, the wine is still medium-bodied, elegant, focused and complex. This wine is still an infant, but with extraordinary potential for 50 or more years of evolution.

Regarding the two old boys, my birth year, 1947, I thought would have been a tough year given the heat in these gravelly soils at Haut-Bailly. The wine was just beautiful, with light garnet color and plenty of amber, but a wonderful, sweet nose of forest floor, cedar wood, incense, and red and black fruits, followed by a gentle, round, supple mouthfeel with surprisingly good fruit. There was relatively lofty glycerin and the natural alcohol was elevated in this vintage, ending with a smooth-as-silk finish. It is always emotional for me to drink a wine from my birth year. It is hard not to think of one's parents when having such a profound, true treat.

I hadn't expected much from the 1918 - of course, that was the end of the Great War, as they call it in Europe - but this was really a stunning wine, with lots of cedar wood, tobacco leaf, a slight hint of dying charcoal embers, but with some red and black fruit still present. The color was a light garnet with plenty of amber at the edge, but the wine was fresh, lively and amazingly well-preserved for a bottle that's 96 years of age!

We then finished (and it was the smart thing to do) with probably the two greatest Haut-Baillys that Robert Wilmers and Véronique Sanders have produced to date. The 2009 hit the magical three-digit score, so to speak, and the 2010 seems to want to get there very quickly, but it needs more time. The 2009 is my all-time favorite Bordeaux vintage, and most of those wines will hit their full peak when I'm pushing up daisies. Nevertheless, what a great, great vintage. It is similar in style to 1982, but even richer, with a stricter, more consistent selection by most of the châteaux. Overall, all the investments in the vineyards and cellars seem to have come to fruition in 2009 and 2010.

The 2009 Haut-Bailly has an opaque ruby/purple color, a beautiful nose of lead pencil shavings, crème de cassis, blackberry and plum, followed by an intense, super-concentrated mouthfeel that is expansive and savory, with beautifully integrated tannins and low acidity, as most wines in this vintage possess. There is still plenty of freshness and liveliness from this great terroir. The finish goes on for close to a minute and the wine, while still a young pre-adolescent in terms of its evolution, is absolutely spectacularly complex and enjoyable already. This is a 40- to 50-year wine that will probably be surpassed in its longevity by its younger sibling, the 2010. This vintage is a similar inky purple color, with subtle notes of licorice, barbecue smoke, crème de cassis, a bit more blackberry and slightly more formidable tannic structure, but again, the tannins are well-integrated and the wine constructed in a velvety, seamless (haute couture) way by Véronique Sanders. The wine coats the palate in a viscosity and richness, but there's a freshness and precision that is further indication of just how profound this wine will turn out. The wine needs another 5 to10 years and is not as "open for business" as the 2009 will probably always be, but wow, what a spectacular wine! I suspect these are the two greatest back-to-back Haut-Baillys ever made in the long, celebrated history of this small estate in Pessac-Leognan.

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