"Ah, you are my house guest this Thursday!" exclaimed the glamorous Florence Cathiard, who, with her husband Daniel, owns Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux. Though I can’t quite remember if Madame Cathiard was actually wearing diamonds, she seemed to sparkle with them, such was the charm of her dazzling personality.
To set the scene, we were at a very elegant party at the Academie Du Vin de Bordeaux, and I was sipping a glass of 1920 Chateau Montrose (still racy with generous though somewhat faded fruit after a near century). It has become a custom for top Chateaux to donate library wines that end in a “0” and I happily spent the night drinking 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and so on. Swirling around me were the most famous Chateaux families in Bordeaux. Madame Cathiard fit in this scene beautifully, and I suddenly found myself very curious to visit Smith Haut Lafitte, where I would be a guest of their estate and at dinner, and enjoy a private tasting of the new 2009 vintage.
When I arrived, I found the Chateau (located in Graves) as gorgeous as one can imagine, with two white swans swimming in a pond. Nearby yet out of sight were the hotel, spa, and gourmet restaurants the couple and their two adult daughters had created, Sources de Caudalie — very famous for its revitalizing treatments, cosmetics, and cuisine. Two years earlier I had dined there, seen the rooms, and vowed to return. It is the kind of place you only see in France, where the glass-walled pool area is filled with attractive, very slender and fit people who have just enjoyed a spectacular lunch, while the treadmills in the room called a gym could be a museum piece.
The tasting of the 2009 vintage wa quite a production given the state-of-the-art tasting room with its high-tech cellar. Once we had assembled, Mr. Cathiard took out his remote control device and the cellar doors parted in “Open Sesame” fashion. Fellow guests, including two Masters of Wine, a magazine publisher, and a famous wine journalist for a UK newspaper, all took a look before the Cathiards’ Technical Director Fabian Teitgen and elegantly dressed and mannered sommelier opened the new vintage and explained their terroir, winemaking process, and philosophy.
The Graves terroir consists of gravelly soil, layers of alluvial, sandy, and stony soil deposited on a limestone soil by rivers and glaciers during what is known as the Quaternary Period. The estate has a rare example of a “croupe” or rise of Gunze gravel, which is thick and ochre-colored due to its high iron content. It is well drained, poor, warm on the surface, while being cool and humid deep down thanks to clay and limestone. This means that the vines have naturally low yields, and the grapes ripen slowly and fully as the wet soil deep down regulates the water supply and makes for even ripening. The 2009 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2009 red is elegant and well balanced, and one can really taste the soil Fabien Teitgen described. So — how did it get that way?