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Château Haut-Bailly 1996

My blog post last Friday took an impromptu and informal look back at my favourite vintages, travelling back in time as far as (and including) 2000. The stimulus to make the post was my realisation, having retasted both the 2009 and 2010 vintages in the past year, that although both are great vintages they both also have their flaws. In 2009 it is in particular the very rich, fat, atypical style which will not be to everybody's taste, and I have noted some alcoholic heat here and there (although this mostly concerns the usual suspects, rather than being a vintage-wide problem). The 2010 vintage is more classical in its lines, but carries a lot of alcohol, tannin and acidity, and there are more than a handful of right bank aberrations in this vintage also. There is no such thing as the 'perfect' vintage I suppose, and indeed no such thing as the 'perfect' wine, despite the obvious draw of the 100-pointer (which seem to be multiplying like yeast in a warm fermentation vat these days; perfection is the new black, it seems).

I will provide a lot more information on 2010 over the coming weeks, as I have an eleven-page summary of my recent tastings of the vintage just about ready for publication. In the meantime though, a response to my post asked me to look back and integrate 1994, 1995 and 1996 into my assessment. It's not an easy task, especially as any extensive tastings of these vintages I might have made are now little more than distant memories, and it is only through tasting wines from my own cellar that I have been able to revisit them. Having said that, I still have clear views on which wines I prefer, with the pure, classically styled, Cabernet-dominant wines of the left bank in the 1996 vintage being my favourite wines of the entire decade I think. The 1995 vintage has given mixed experiences; sometimes the wines are singing, sometimes they seem rather less in tune. As for 1994, the vintage gives us some affordable wines especially suited to those who prefer a touch more austerity or savoury character in their wines. It isn't an exciting vintage, even if some of the grander wines are very good indeed, but it is at least reliable.

Château Haut-Bailly 1996

A high level of success in the left bank communes of St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien does not automatically translate through to Pessac-Léognan, on the far side of the city of Bordeaux. Indeed this is the case in 1996, as although this was a very good vintage for this commune, if not an excellent one, I'm not sure I would place it at the top of the 1990s tree. Accepting the caveat that I haven't had the luxury of tasting the two vintages side by side, I do wonder whether 1998 might give 1996 a run for its money in that respect. The 1998 vintage is one where all the hype was directed towards the right bank appellations of St Emilion and Pomerol, and - not for the first time - the wines of Pessac-Léognan and the broader Graves appellation were overlooked. In my experience they have an awful lot to give in this vintage.

These feelings regarding the potential superiority of 1998 are perhaps compounded by a slightly sub-par performance from this particular bottle of Château Haut-Bailly 1996. Previous encounters with this wine have produced a more thrilling experience; happily the wine was still very good, just not enjoyed or scored at the level of prior tastings. the wine is still very young (in my books) and so I will put this down to bottle variation rather than some sign of deterioration. This is a fact of life when it comes to wine, and it is a reason why claims of 100% consistency and repeatability when it comes to retasting and rescoring wines should always be viewed with a very critical eye. Anyway, on with the wine, which did much to take my mind off the snow drifts building up outside this weekend. The 1996 Château Haut-Bailly was decanted for two hours, and showed a very dark hue, with some matt maturity, but certainly no pallor or fade. The nose seems to mirror this very dark colour, with a very savoury, slightly spiced character, and very little in the way of fruit. There is some roasted and rather gamey meat, nuanced with typical Graves notes of leaves and undergrowth. Strangely, though, I also get a little tomato leaf in this bottle, not something I have encountered before here, and not at all typical for Haut-Bailly (or indeed the appellation as a whole!). Happily it is rather low level though. The palate feels really cool and detached at first, but seems to gain further weight and flesh with more time in the decanter. It is very dry and upright, almost austere, with a considerable grip and tannic bite in keeping with the vintage, with plenty of savoury, spicy tannins. It feels very dry and is showing a leaner character towards the finish. An attractive wine but it doesn't seem to hold the same confident character that a bottle tasted last year did. 17/20 (21/1/13)

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