The quality of the 2015 vintage being presented to merchants over the past month makes it feel like the “the sun’s come out” for the Bordeaux region, according to Robert Wilmers, M&T Bank Corp. chairman and chief executive officer and owner of Chateau Haut Bailly, a grand cru classe wine estate south of the city.
“It’s a pleasure for the psyche,” the U.S. financier said in an interview April 4 in the salon of his nineteenth-century chateau overlooking vines, which were just starting to bud. The estate, which he bought 18 years ago, lies on sandy-gravel slopes just outside the town of Leognan, part of the Pessac-Leognan appellation.
While Wilmers said recent years have been good for Haut Bailly, Bordeaux more generally has had a run of less successful vintages, particularly from 2011 to 2013 when prices fell as demand for first growths waned. The London-based Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index has now risen for the past five months, its longest streak of monthly gains for five years.
Wilmers acquired Haut Bailly, with 30 hectares (74 acres) of vineyards, in 1998 and has invested heavily in new winemaking facilities and equipment since then. That has been reflected in both rising critical acclaim, with his 2009 vintage scoring a perfect 100 from U.S. wine writer Robert Parker, and corresponding climbing prices.
“My timing was impeccable,” Wilmers said of his 1998 purchase. “The Bordeaux market has gone up dramatically since then.” While there was no preset plan of action when he bought the estate, “every year it’s been obvious what has needed to be done.”
Vines were grown at Haut Bailly as long ago as 1461, according to the estate’s website, with the foundations of the modern vineyard dating from the 1530s.
At the heart of the present-day estate, near the chateau, is a 4-hectare plot of vines that are more than 100 years old, a mixture of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, carmenere, merlot, petit verdot and malbec grapes. The rest of the land is planted with 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot, 3 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent petit verdot, all classic Bordeaux varieties.
Wilmers has renovated the vineyard and chateau, adding cellars with smaller vats to bring more precision to the winemaking. Concrete vats are used during maturation, with oak barrels for aging and stainless-steel tanks for storage.
Veronique Sanders, whose family bought the property in 1955 and ran it for more than 40 years, has been director-general of the estate under Wilmers for almost two decades, maintaining continuity as the style has evolved.
Haut Bailly’s 2009 vintage is priced at 1,450 pounds ($2,120) for a 12-bottle case, according to Liv-ex data, while its 2010 is pitched for 900 pounds. More recent vintages range from 374 pounds a case for the 2013 to 480 pounds for the 2011.
Wine writer Neal Martin, who has replaced Robert Parker as the U.S.-based Wine Advocate’s Bordeaux critic, has given Haut Bailly’s 2015 vintage a score of 95-97 points on a scale of 100, its best score since the 96 points Parker gave its 2012 wine and the 98 points with which he rated the 2010.
“This is an Haut Bailly with real backbone, real sense of purpose,” Martin wrote in a review published on the eRobertParker.com website. “The acidity keeps everything in check and the finish demonstrates wonderful tension.”
Wilmers, who has been chairman and CEO of M&T Bank since May 1983 and is a former director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said old catalogs showed Haut Bailly selling at the same price as Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite Rothschild 100 years ago. Lafite’s 2009 wine is now priced at 6,000 pounds a case, according to Liv-ex, while Latour trades at 8,250 pounds.
Haut Bailly “has the potential to make the same great wine it made at the beginning of the 20th century,” Wilmers said.
Wilmers’s latest project is Chateau Le Pape, an estate dating back to the 18th century which he acquired near Haut Bailly in 2012 and which has been undergoing a renovation of both the vineyard and the main building. The vines at Le Pape are 75 percent merlot and 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, with an average age of 28 years. The chateau itself now offers rooms for rent and gastronomic dining.
Wilmers takes a long-term view of his investments in Haut Bailly, describing himself as the “guardian” of an estate which has established its place in the history of Bordeaux and which is attracting increasing critical acclaim. “Is there anything I regret?” he asked, his silhouette framed against a window looking out across the vineyards. “No.”
Guy Collins reporting for Bloomberg 1st May 2016.