Wine opinion: Pessac chateaux show wines are worth the wait

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 4:08pm

Wine, as we all know, is about playing the long game. Returns on investments if you buy a vineyard are usually talked about in terms of decades - not dissimilar to the amount of time you have to wait for an expensive bottle of red Bordeaux to reach its peak.

So it's fair to say that if you're a wine lover, you have to cultivate the art of patience.

But even taking that into account, the waiting game for Pessac has been longer than most. The patience of chateaux owners in this region - just to the south of Bordeaux city, with many of its vineyards touching city limits, some even surrounded by tram lines, restaurants and busy streets - has been tested for 200 years.

This was the area that, from the 1400s to the mid-1800s, was seen as producing the best wine of Bordeaux. Pessac, and the wider region of Graves, was one of the very few areas to be name-checked separately from Bordeaux itself, long before any chateaux were asked for by name.

Then along came the draining of the Médoc marshland, revealing enticingly stony soil beneath, and the arrival of hordes of Parisian bankers and powerful political families who got busy planting vines and ensuring that the notoriety of their new estates in places such as Margaux and Pauillac grew at home and abroad.

Pretty soon it was either the Médoc, or the Right Bank vineyards of Saint Emilion and Pomerol, that saw the acclaim. Graves has been playing catch-up ever since (with the clear exception of Chateau Haut-Brion, but that's a First Growth and so escapes the usual rules).

But something has been happening in Pessac (or Pessac-Léognan, as the appellation is now called) during the past few years. New blood, new money, and new excitement at properties such as Malartic Lagravière, Smith Haut Lafitte and Les Carmes Haut Brion have brought widespread attention to the region.

And no estate represents its reclaimed confidence more than Chateau Haut-Bailly, whose history dates back to the 1500s. It has been owned by American Robert Wilmers since 1998 and is one of the most sought-after estates in Bordeaux.

Wilmers also runs the M&T Bank in the United States, which has been profitable every quarter since the 1970s, and was one of two banks in Standard & Poor's 500 Index that did not lower their dividends during the 2008 financial crisis.

This is clearly a man who understands playing the long game, and he's not the easiest interview, as every question is answered only after careful consideration. Similarly, at Haut-Bailly, nothing is done without careful thought and each detail is accounted for.

"I am a great believer that it is important to do the right thing and then good things happen," he says. "If you try to force things to happen, it doesn't work out."

His smart management is clearly illustrated in asking Veronique Sanders, the granddaughter of the previous owner, to become managing director after Wilmers took over.

Wilmers clearly agrees, as he credits the chateau's recent rise to "a good management team and great terroir. It's an intellectual challenge running a vineyard, you have to be very knowledgeable and have a very knowledgeable team. But Haut-Bailly has a soul, an elegance, a subtlety that it has had for generations - our work is just to keep making tiny adjustments that build on its past."