Wine Media Guild member Mark Golodetz was responsible for one of my favorite guild tastings since I joined the organization: a vertical tasting, from 2000 to 2006, of neighboring Pauillac domains Chateau Lougueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. On Jan. 22, he performed a similar feat, lining up a notable double-header of two famed Bordeaux Chateaux, both Grand Cru Classe de Graves from the Pessac-Leognan region: Chateau Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier.
Tastings focusing on a particular grape, or a particular region, or grape within a region, are fine. But they aren't hard to come by in the wine world. Something like this is special, and truly educational, allowing you to examine a couple wine houses, near to each other is basic style and geography, over the years. Having the winemakers on hand makes the event doubly illuminating.
Speaking for Domaine de Chevalier was pink-faced, white-haired, jovial owner Olivier Bernard (right). He became head of Domaine de Chevalier in 1983 at the age of 23. The speaker from Haut-Bailly was tall and thin Cellar Master Gabriel Vialard, once of Smith-Haut-Lafitte, who has been charge of the cellars since 2002. In addition, the owner of Chateau Haut-Bailly, Robert Wilmers, attended. He sat next to me, and, in his genteel, patrician grayness, seemed every inch the old banker and power broker he is. Wilmers bought Haut-Vailly a decade ago and calls himself strictly a "Bordeaux Man."
For the pre-lunch tasting, both Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier provided seven red vintages: 2001, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06 and 07. Chevalier also furnished three white wine vintages, including a 2001 which was an absolute highlight. It was a beautiful, dignified, steel-and-mineral wine, restrained, with a perfect, pinpoint structure. A masterpiece.
Chevalier has almost 94 acres of vines, of which red varieties are 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, the balance being 2.5% Cabernet Franc and 2.5% Petit Verdot. Haut-Bailly, located on a small hill, has 74 acres of vines planted. It still has fifteen percent of its 100-year-old vines dating from the pre-phylloxera period –- a mixture of Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a point of pride for Haut-Bailly, as well as it should be. The majority of the estate, meanwhile, is planted with 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 6% Cabernet Franc.
In his introduction, Mark described Bernard as a man from which you hae to coax information. But I didn't find him shy. Once he got going, he ended up speaking more than anyone, and was very free with this philosophical aphorisms, such as "I want to make wine from the fruit," and "Never too much, but always enough," as well as "We are not talking about drinkability enough today" and "Oak is for people who don't have enough terroir."
Both Bernard and Vialard emphasized terroir, and their unflagging respect for it. Bernard said he only wished to bring out the wine the soil intended. "It is easy to make big wine. But it is not Bordeaux, sorry. Extraction is very well paid in Bordeaux. I like to talk about concentration, not extraction, which is a human effort."
Needless to say, everyone in the guild was in happy agreement with the winemakers, and chuckled at their shots at the tastes of "a certain wine critic." Wilmers said Haut-Bailly would change "over his dead body."
The wines of the two houses showed their marked personalities. Overall, Haut-Bailly seemed less fruit-oriented and more restrained. Chevalier was more immediately appealing, even in off-years, while Haut-Bailly's charms were more subdued and subtle. I thought I was imagining things when I found myself more attracted to the 2002s, rather than the famous 2000 and 2005 vintages (fine as they were, particularly the 2000 Haut-Bailly). But a few fellow drinkers confirmed my preference. 2002 may not be a great vintage, but right now these two Graves were drinking splendidly. The Chevalier had a wonderful, sweet tobacco nose, good composition, nice depth and subdued fruit. The Haut-Bailly had a full fruity nose, and a sweet-tough taste of dark fruit and tobacco skin.
Another surprise was how nicely the little-heralded 2007s were tasting. The Chevalier was a bright, dry, plummy delight.
With lunch, their 1990 red vintages were served. I'm sorry to say these were a bit disappointing, a bit watery and faded. But the restaurant got wind of Wilmers' presence and served him some of Haut-Bailly's 1983, which they had in their cellar. He gave me a sip. That was pure heaven, wonderfully deep and silky. A dream. I didn't feel too bad taking a draught. I'm sure old Wilmers has a dozen bottles of it in his cellar.