Like Château Haut-Brion, the fortunes of Château Haut-Bailly have greatly improved under the direction of an American financier. American banker Robert Wilmers bought Haut-Bailly in 1998, and like Clarence Dillon of Haut-Brion, he saw the wisdom of retaining top talent – promoting Veronique Sanders, the granddaughter of the previous owner, to the top job as manager of the estate.

In less than a decade, Sanders has succeeded in elevating Château Haut-Bailly to such a level that the esteemed American critic Robert Parker believes it a worthy contender to the icon wines of Pessac-Leognan: Pape-Clement, La Mission-Haut-Brion, and Haut-Brion.

Here’s Parker’s review of the stunning 2009 vintage:

The greatest Haut-Bailly ever made? One can’t speak enough of the job Veronique Sanders has done in 2009, allied with the owner, the American banker Robert Wilmers, who has given her carte blanche authority. Tiny yields have resulted in the most concentrated Haut-Bailly I have ever tasted. Eclipsing even the 2005, the 2009 (a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc) possesses 13.9% natural alcohol. Dense purple to the rim, it exhibits a precise, nuanced nose of mulberries, black cherries, black currants, graphite, and a singular floral component. A wine of profound intensity and full-bodied power, yet stunningly elegant, and never heavy or massive, it builds incrementally on the palate, and the finish lasts over 45 seconds. Remarkably, there is not a hard edge to be found in this beauty. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were harvested between October 7 and 14, which explains their phenolic maturity. The wine’s extraordinary freshness, elegance, and precision are nearly surreal. This tour de force should age brilliantly for 40+ years. (Tasted two times.) (Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate #188 April 2010 96 to 98+ points. Drink 2010 -2050)

In a sense, Robert Wilmers’ strategic involvement in Haut-Bailly is an example of history repeating itself. In 1872 Alcide Bellot des Minières, another remarkable businessman who had worked in the United States, purchased Haut-Bailly. His drive, energy, and meticulous attention to scientific detail was responsible for lifting prices for Haut-Bailly  to a level similar to those of the Bordeaux First Growths – Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion.

Interestingly, Alcide Bellot des Minières was one of the few vineyard owners who opposed to grafting his delicate French vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Consequently Haut-Bailly still has a remarkable fifteen percent of its old vines (100 plus years) dating from the pre-phylloxera period,  – a mixture of Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The remainder of the estate is planted with 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 6% Cabernet Franc.

Situated on the left bank of the River Garonne, south of Bordeaux  in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan, Haut Bailly’s  30 hectares (74 acres) of planted vines sit on a high ridge overlooking a small winding road leading from Leognan to Cadaujac. The sloping terrain is well-graded and has excellent drainage. The soil is sandy, mixed with gravel, and rests on a subsoil of sandstone petrified with the remains of prehistoric fossil shells.

The vineyard is managed along traditional lines – the vines are grown without the use of chemical weedkillers, yields are strictly limited, and the soil is ploughed and worked according to long-established methods. All the grapes are harvested by hand – normally two weeks later than at Haut-Brion, because of the subtle differences in terroir and micro-climate. The cabermet sauvignon is usually picked last and only when it is fully ripe.

Sanders has installed four times the number of tanks so that the winery can be very precise with the vinification of each plot, insuring that only the best parcels are selected for the Grand Cru Classe de Graves blend. The must is now transferred by gravity instead of pump to insure the gentlest extraction possible of the juice.

In a recent article, American wine critic James Suckling declared the 2009 vintage the “greatest modern vintage ever.” He noted that a  case of the 2009 Petrus (en-primeur) will set you back $US$47,000, a case of Mouton Rothschild $13,000 and a case of  Lafite $25,000. (Rouge Awakening by James Suckling, Hong Kong Tatler February 2011.  I noticed that Wine Star is selling the Chateau Haut Bailly 2009 (delivery in 2012) for $299.99 a bottle. A bargain perhaps!