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Tasting 2009 Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux

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"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?

Grapes are picked at the ultimate ripeness and carefully sorted into a small three-hectoliter mobile vat. The temperature is lowered for cold masceration prior to alcoholic fermentation to bring out color and aroma. Indigenous yeast helps the fermentation begin spontaneously. M. Teitgen prefers to mascerate at an average temperature of 26-28 degrees centigrade with pigeage (punching down the cap), as it is the most delicate extraction method. Interestingly, this is done by hand. Post-masceration the vats are kept at a temperature of 28 degrees centigrade and left on the skins as long as it takes for the wine to form its tannic structure and acquire the right degree of richness. Then they run off the free run juice, separating it from the solid matter in the vat. This is used to make the press wine. The secondary (malolactic) fermentation takes place partly in vat, partly in barrel, to stabilize the red wine. The wine is kept on its lees for the first months of aging, and the team decides what winemaking operations to do based on weekly tastings.

The same care goes into the white wine, with the grapes grown on soil that has more clay. These grapes (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon) are picked by hand in several waves to get perfect ripeness, then pressed in a pneumatic winepress in a nitrogen atmosphere. During the pressing, the grapes and juice are protected from oxidation by a blanket of inert nitrogen gas, which helps the wine retain its color and aromatic potential. The juice goes into stainless steel vats via gravity flow at a temperature of 8 degrees centigrade for cold settling lasting 24 hours, then it is put in barrel. The alcoholic fermentation takes place in barrel and lasts for 8-20 days, then the wine is aged on the lees for 10-12 months in 50 percent new oak barrels. These barrels are regularly topped up, stirred with a stick, and tasted. The 2009 white Chateau Haut Laffite is fresh and delicious, with an aromatic nose and perfect level of acidity, and reflects the care in the vineyard and wine cellar.

Lucky guests also had a chance to taste the second label, Chateau Cantelys, which the Cathiards just decided to export to America as “Recession Proof Wine.” Chateau Cantelys is a 40-hectare estate of which 24 hectares are under vine in the commune of Martillac in the heart of the Pessac-Leognan appellation. The estate is a single block located on a gravelly rise, with the average age of the vines 20 years. I tried both the red and the white and they were very good quality, with the white being especially vibrant and aromatic.

Dinner was lovely — the Cathiards are gracious and generous hosts, with many spectacular library wines to match the cuisine. And in the morning, the glamour of the previous evening turned into a a delightful and very comfortable breakfast with Madame Cathiard as we sat in the estate’s enormous kitchen with its near-antique stove, nibbling on croissants and talking about her daughters, their dedication to Sources de Caudalie, and the success of the many spas (including the Plaza hotel) who now carry their products. Madame Cathiard is such a glamorous, exciting woman and unrivaled storyteller that one would think she lives the life of a character in a best-selling romance novel — and perhaps she does. Yet one rarely meets an individual so genuinely sincere, vivacious, devoted to her family, and talented in the vineyard as well as the integrated aspects of marketing, distribution, etc.

Beyond tasting the excellent 2009 Chateau Smith Haut LaFitte wine, meeting the Cathiards, hearing their many stories, and seeing their absolute devotion to this Chateau impacted me quite powerfully. And their story is so deeply intertwined with their wine one can almost taste it in the glass. And now, with Chateau Cantelys coming to America, one can “taste” their story on an every-night basis with dinner.

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