Friday, January 25, 2008

A Rare Double Vertical-4 Decades of Haut-Bailly & Pape Clément

This event was a great way to kick off the year. I love Bordeaux and I love drinking it in the context of a vertical tasting. One of the strengths of the wines is that each vintage tells a different story and we were lucky enough to be joined by the owner and manager of Haut-Bailly, Robert Wilmers and Véronique Sanders, to weave the tale. I had the good fortune of sitting across from the charming Mme. Sanders, whose family owned the chateau and made the wines for years. The idea for this dinner germinated in a conversation between wine writer Panos Kakaviatos and the real Jay Miller (i.e., not the Wine Advocate critic) about the changes to Pape Clément in recent vintages. The plan essentially was to taste a vertical of PC to see the changes since Magrez took power using HB as a classical control. To that end, it was a smashing success.

Both Haut-Bailly in the heart of Léognan and Pape-Clément in Bordeaux suburb of Pessac (it is within the BDX ring road) showed very differently, owing perhaps to their unique soils, although both showed the classic elements of traditional Graves. The wines were wonderful (other than a couple of early hiccups), especially the HB which showed a consistent style and quality. I own some HB, but never really sat down with it as seriously as this and really fell in love with the freshness and purity of the fruit common to these wines.

Thanks to Jay and Panos for organizing and to Veronique for her generosity and unique insights that pepper this report.

Mature Clarets
We had much more luck with the HB in this flight. The '88 HB was in particular a revelation, as expectations were pretty low. Véronique particularly enjoyed it as they have none at the chateau and this was an unusually good showing. She indicated that in the past in had shown "square" and this was much more "round" and complete. She also noted that the '78 was the last vintage of her great-grandfather. How nice it must be to have that much personal connection to a wine!
  • 1978 Château Haut-Bailly-A beautiful mature Claret. The nose was a delicate perfume that evolved gently showing graphite, ash and loamy earth. The fruit was fresh and pure on the palate and I was surprised by the sneaky persistence of this wine: it rippled slowly on and on. The freshness of the fruit was a nice counterpoint for the spritely acidity leaving the overall impression of balance and delicacy.
  • 1978 Château Pape Clément-I kept thinking this bottle was going to right itself, but it never did. It was musty and musky with some varnish notes (VA?). Not much relief in the mouth as it was pretty thin and diluted. It must have been an off bottle.
  • 1988 Château Haut-Bailly-This wine started out a touch angular, evincing nothing more than cedar and graphite, but with a little aggressive swirling it blossomed in the glass into a charming Claret. Popping from the glass were aromas of sweet and slightly sour cherries mingled with orange peel and some Asian spice. The fruit in the mouth was slightly darker than it showed on the nose and was full and broad across the palate. If there were ever seams to this wine they have since hidden themselves admirably. This wine has years of life ahead and will only get better.
  • 1988 Château Pape Clément-This wine was pretty dirty. I think brett can be a character enhancer, but clearly a fine line was crossed. The nose of wet diapers masked whatever charm was underlying this bottle. The bottle looked good, so I would think it's something in the winemaking. A real shame.
Flight of the Night
These wines were very fine. Any of them could have put up an argument for wine of the night. The '89s are all about finesse and the '90s about power. Véronique noted that to combat the hot harvest of '89, they kept the fermentation cool (<28ºc/82ºf) in order to tame the intensity of the fruit.
  • 1989 Château Haut-Bailly-A wine of brilliant finesse, the '89 was probably the favorite wine of the night for the group. The nose was of exceptionally pure cassis and it gained complexity in the glass displaying touches of spice and cocoa. Wonderfully broad in the mouth, it had an alluring minerality and mouthwatering acidity to balance the ample fruit. The tannins to a certain extent contribute to the weightiness in the mouth, but I expect that they will step out of the way as the fruit matures. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
  • 1989 Château Pape Clément-A very good if somewhat incomplete wine. I wasn't wild abouty the nose, which was pretty reticent. A hint of fruit, but mostly lead pencil and earth along with a touch of VA. It was much more pleasant in the mouth, with a full mouthfeel, well-delineated fruit and an interesting steeliness. It had a nice acidity that carried the finish nicely.
  • 1990 Château Haut-Bailly-A stikingly powerful wine, it seems to have more of everything. A deep, dark nose with notes of graphite, ash and roasted herbs. A full mouthfeel that showed impressive depth and breadth. Perfect balance between the ripe, ripe fruit and underlying acidity. It is a great example of the richness of the vintage that I so much enjoy. Perhaps it will have a lower apogee than the '89, but I thought it was the better wine for today.
  • 1990 Château Pape Clément-A powerful wine that speaks to the richness of the vintage and the character of its place. Soaring aromatics of dark fruit, scorched earth, spice and licorice. It had a nice minerality and purity to the fruit although the palate could have used a touch more focus and it lacked some of the complexity that it showed on the nose. Plenty of structure left here, so it will be interesting to revist this wine in 5-10 years. This isn't a classic wine, but it is quite excellent.
A Soft Landing
I found these wine to be somewhat unusual compared to the others in that they were much softer wines. Not making a value judgment, just noting the facts. For the HB, the '98 has 43% Merlot and the '00 had 50%, which are some high numbers for these wines. I would assume that the PC blends were similar. I was fairly well impressed by the '98s which were very open wines that could be drunk now, albeit a little simple. The '00s on the other hand were fairly closed, but were more complex, I thought, which runs counter to the logic that the '98 vintage was the better one for Pessac-Léognan. These wine also proved out the point for Pape Clément saw a real change to a more "modern" and aggressive style of wine. Not that that is a bad thing, the wines were much cleaner and were very well crafted. I could see many people finding them a bit of an anathema however. On the other hand, the HB wines were true to their historical style with very clean, pure performances. The '98 PC was probably the one PC that I liked better than its HB analogue, however, I could see someone easily perferring the freshness and true Graves character of the HB.
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly-Plush and soft, this wine is a little too fruit driven at the moment. The fruit is pretty primary on the nose and there is an ample amount of it. It is quite full-bodied and weighty in the mouth, although by no means heavy. There is nice acidity there, but the finish is more fruit driven at the moment. It's open knit and ready to go now notwithstanding that age will certainly help in develop some more complexity.
  • 1998 Château Pape Clément-This one was open and ready to go. Lots of plush, round dark fruit mixed with a bit of dark chocolate and a ton of licorice. Full in the mouth and bordering on heavy, it has decent concentration but is a little short on focus. The tannins are fine and the acidity merely adequate. A really juicy, chewy, fairly simple wine that has a nice "please like me" personality. I don't think it's going anywhere for a while but it certainly is enjoyable now.
  • 2000 Château Haut-Bailly-While I usually prefer more Cabernet driven wines, I liked this quite a bit. That said, it is way too young for a proper evaluation of the details as it doesn't show much nuance. The beginning and end of this wine are fruit driven and the palate is balanced but somewhat uniteresting at the moment. That said, it is impressively crafted. It is a very soft wine (about 50% Merlot) notwithstanding the impressive tannic structure. While other vintages of Haut Bailly seem to use the acidic structure to balance the fruit, this one appears to rely more on the tannins. Accordingly, this is going to need some time to show what it's got. A very impressive value for the vintage.
  • 2000 Château Pape Clément-This wine is an inch wide and a mile deep. The color, the and deep. However, it isn't showing any breadth at this stage, so its a little bit of a waste. Made in a soft, round, modern style, the nose is dominated by black fruit, semi-sweet chocolate and oak-driven roasted espresso. There's lots of pure, concentrated fruit there and a huge architecture framing it. It's more of the pieces of an excellent wine than a good wine now. Hopefully, time will tie it up into a great package because it does have potential.
Sandwich Vintages
I tend to ignore these two vintages, sandwiched between '00 and '03. I did like the '01s as being good every day drinkers and continued my general dislike for the hard '02 vintage.
  • 2001 Château Haut-Bailly-I am sort of torn about whether this is a sleeper of a wine or just an everyday drinker. It is pretty much textbook Léognan with deep cassis, smoke and earth. It's slightly on the thin side of medium-bodied and doesn't have much architecture, but it is wide open and impeccably balanced. A wine with an amiable, easygoing demeaner that will neither disappoint or set the world on fire. A nice wine to drink while you're waiting for your other vintages of Haut Bailly to age.
  • 2001 Château Pape Clément-This wine is packed, but shows itself in a fairly restrained way. Not to say that this isn't made in a modern style, it is. The fruit is sweet bordering on jammy, but I didn't feel that it got out of hand, as there were ample tannins and good acidity. Common sense says to wait on this one, although it is certainly drinking well now with some fine secondary characteristics of spice and licorice. The style of this wine is not going to appeal to everyone, yet there is no denying the talent that went into making it.
  • 2002 Château Haut-Bailly-While others seem to enjoy the '02 vintage, I have not and this wine did not convert me. It's a hard, steely wine that reveals little on the nose. It is pretty angular and doesn't give much more than structure and the slight astringency that I've found common to the vintage. Perhaps age will soften it up as it is well-made.
Young Pups
We finished with some great youngsters that show great promise. The star of the night though was the '05 HB. An absolutely stunning wine and I put my money were my mouth was the next morning by purchasing a case.
  • 2004 Château Haut-Bailly-This wine seemed to be in a bit more modern style than other vintages. It had some nice fruit and some Graves undertones, but it had a bunch of oak as well. The results are much better in the mouth where you get a little bit more of the purity of the fruit. It's pretty big boned and quite tannic that should give it some structure to age and integrate, but it was somewhat lacking in acidity and that worries me a bit. Still not a bad effort for a vintage that hasn't warmed my heart.
  • 2004 Château Pape Clément-A big and juicy wine. The nose is all about power with waves of cassis hitting you with little subtlety. It is not without complexity however and it already is showing some nice secondary element of Graves. It doesn't seem to be going for elegance, but may acheive it in spite of itself if it can shed its youthful exhuberence. It also may veer off into pure decadence. For now though, it comes across as a bit blowzy despite some good structural elements.
  • 2005 Château Haut-Bailly-Wow, what a wine. The nose is explosive, yet precise, filled with pure, fresh fruit and typical Graves notes and baking spice. This wine is a dream in the mouth with so much fresh fruit that you don't mind the ample but super-fine tannins. An undercurrent of acidity knits the package together. Exquisitely put together, this wine was a star that should easily top the wonderful '89 and '90 vintages.

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