Bordeaux profile: Château Haut Bailly

In the third of a series exploring the history, market performance and most recent vintages of some of Bordeaux’s leading estates, Colin Hay uses the opportunity afforded by a rare vertical tasting at the château to look at the striking progression of the Pessac-Léognan classed growth Château Haut Bailly over the past two decades.

Terroir, history and context

Like many of the truly great wines of Bordeaux, Haut Bailly is an ancient estate based on an exceptional and unique terroir. Records show vines already planted on the gravel heights of ‘Pujau’ (as it was then called) as early as 1461. And, somewhat unusually for Bordeaux, the estate came into being in something resembling its present configuration and size (around 33 hectares) as early as the 1630s, following an expansion and consolidation of the vineyard by Firmin de Bailly (after whom it is named) and Nicolas de Leuvarde.

By the late 19th century Haut Bailly’s renown and reputation had grown to such a point that its wines sold for the same price as the first growths of the Médoc. That this was true owed much to the influence of the celebrated Roi des vignerons (‘king of winegrowers’), Alcide Bellot des Minières who had acquired the property in 1872. One of his most important legacies, enduring to this day, is the four hectares of vines which he planted close to the château and at one of the highest elevations in the appellation with all six permitted varieties. Now 100-120 years old, these are among the oldest vines in Bordeaux and they still form the basis of the first wine. 

Even then this combination of exceptional terroir and skilled planting helped Haut Bailly garner a most enviable reputation (Denis Dubourdieu’s survey of the entire vineyard in the early 2000s revealed a near very optimal matching of varietals to their terroirs). Indeed, Henry Guillier’s graphical depiction of les grands vins de la Gironde, which dates from the early 20th century, places Yquem at the centre of its five-pointed star, with the four original grands crus of the 1855 classification and Ausone between each of the five points – and Mouton-Rothschild and Haut Bailly at their side. The implication was clear: Haut Bailly belonged in such illustrious (and classified) company (though there was of course no official classification of the wines of the Graves at the time). 

But sadly, as is also so often the case for the leading crus of our age, by the time the ink was dry on Guillier’s illustration of Girondain vinicultural nobility, Haut Bailly was already in steep decline. It was not until the 1950s, more precisely 1955 with its acquisition by Veronique Sanders’ great-grandfather Daniel, that the descent would be halted, the corner turned. His was by that time a much-needed and long-overdue project of renovation – in the vineyard and of the cellar.  It was also he who introduced an increasingly strict selection for the grand vin itself.

The next episode in Haut Bailly’s return to glory came in 1998, with the acquisition of the property from the Sanders family by the noted US banker, reformer and philanthropist, Robert G. Wilmers. A combination of generous financial investment plus a subtle, gentle and enthusiastic promotion of Haut Bailly (and Bordeaux more generally) through the 20 years of his ownership have contributed to a steep uplift in the estate’s ambitions, to its rejuvenation and, in the past decade, to the re-securing of its historic place at the pinnacle of the appellation and amongst the top handful of wines of the region. 

By the time of his passing in 2017, Haut Bailly was already back where the quality of its terroir gave it the natural endowment to be. Under the chairmanship of his son, Chris Wilmers, Professor of Ecology at the University of California Santa Cruz and the wise, experienced and accomplished directorship of Veronique Sanders, Haut Bailly enters the 2020s in the best possible health.

Haut Bailly’s market profile

Before turning in more detail to the wines themselves, it is perhaps first interesting to examine Haut Bailly’s place in the market today. Here, as for my earlier profiles of Brane-Cantenac and Beychevelle, I am fortunate enough to be able to draw upon figures and data provided for me by Nicola Graham and the team at Liv-ex – the global marketplace for the wine trade.

If we look first at Liv-ex’s Haut Bailly index, which traces the price movements of the last ten physical vintages of the wine, we see that it tracks very closely the performance of its parental indices, the Bordeaux 500 and, more closely still, the Left Bank 200.

On the face of it, there is nothing especially remarkable about this, except when it is considered that very few if any wines of the appellation have tracked so closely either of these indices. And what that in turn suggests is that Haut Bailly behaves on the secondary market – and, above all, is treated by secondary market actors – more like a Médoc classed growth than a Graves grand cru classé.

But this plot in fat hides as much as it reveals. For if we zoom in more closely on the period since 2014, as in the following graph which represents the same data rebased at 100 in June 2014, some interesting details (largely hidden in the previous plot) become more visible.

For what becomes clear here is that between 2014 and late 2019, before the downturn in the global fine wine market, the Haut Bailly index consistently out-formed it parental indices. This, too, is hardly a revelation; but it is very important in any assessment of Haut-Bailly’s current market position.

For it suggests that it is only really over this quite recent period of time that Haut Bailly has moved into the realm of investment wines, after a striking uplift in its critical acclaim, bolstered above all by the its 100 point-scoring 2009. Indeed, from 2009 onwards, Haut Bailly has often been referred to as Pessac-Léognan’s ‘super second’. This graph suggests that, from around 2014, its market profile started behaving like one.

Such an impression is reinforced if we look at the following plot, which compares Haut Bailly’s critical acclaim against that of what would seem to be the most relevant peer group, the second growths of the Médoc.

What it demonstrates very clearly it that until 2004 Haut Bailly’s critical acclaim placed it consistently below the average for the Médoc second growths, whereas from 2004 onwards it has consistently outscored its second growths peers. 

That is already impressive. But what is more impressive still is that, as the following graph shows just as clearly, it has remained remarkably affordable when compared to those very same peers.

Here we see Haut Bailly’s current market price for each consecutive vintage from 2000 to 2018 compared with the minimum, the maximum and the average (or mean) of the Médoc second classed growths (here in sterling for a case of 12 bottles in bond). What the data show is that, despite the marked uptick in Haut Bailly’s critical acclaim from 2004 onwards, such that it now consistently outscores the average of the second growths (often now matching the best scoring of the second growths), its market price has remained below the average of the second growths. The sole vintage for which this is not the case is the 100 point-scoring 2009.

Given this, the following graph is also hardly surprising. But it is rather interesting. It shows the percentage increase in price since release of a number of great vintages from 2000 to 2016 for Haut Bailly and some of the leading second growths of St Julien.

Haut Bailly is clearly the best-performing of these wines on the secondary market – and by some distance. In four of the six vintages considered (2000, 2005, 2009 and 2015) its secondary market performance exceeds all of these second growths – and by a significant margin. For the other two vintages (2010 and 2016), it delivers a better market return than either Las Cases or Ducru.

But it is not just in the great vintages that Haut Bailly shines on the secondary market as the following plot shows.

This compares the change in secondary market price since release for Haut Bailly and the Médoc second growth average for every vintage between 2000 and 2018. In each and every year, with the sole exception of 2011 (and then only by a whisker), Haut Bailly outperforms the second growth average. 

As this suggests, judging by its market performance, its new found status as an investment-grade wine is richly deserved. 

Finally, it is worth looking closely at two fascinating plots which come from Liv-ex data. 

The first shows current market prices for recent vintages of Haut Bailly plotted against Robert Parker and Neal Martin’s scores. It suggests, in particular, that the 2019, 2012, 2008, and 2006 (all, incidentally, vintages that performed very well in the vertical tasting below) are currently under-valued relative to their critical appreciation. The 2016 and 2010 also look to me to be under-valued – an impression only reinforced by my sense (before and after the tasting) that the scores awarded to them by Martin and Parker respectively are at least a little conservative (see my tasting notes below). 

The second plot, the product of a rather more sophisticated statistical analysis that explores the relationship (or correlation) between price and score, merely confirms the point. All those vintages below the fitted curve are revealed as good value relative to their (RP/NM) score. 

When it is considered that Haut Bailly is one of those rare wines where the uplift in prices has yet to catch up with the uplift in quality (the effect of which would be, over time, to move the regression curve upwards on the plot), these all look like very good value indeed. 

In short, Haut Bailly, as my tasting notes below confirm, is a property now making some of the best wines that it has ever made; but it is also a property whose wines remain remarkably affordable given the quality of its terroir and the skill and elegance with which it is now consistently expressed.

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