Day Nine: The Surprises of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

After the missing key debacle, we raced out of the hotel and through the vineyard to make our appointment at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – thank goodness we didn’t have far to go for this meeting! The Chateau and its surrounding area is beautiful and so relaxed – it just invited you to stay for a while – which we did, as it turns out.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafite.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.  The columns you see in the picture are from the entrance to the hotel behind us.
The grounds.
The grounds.
Pretty pool.
Pretty fountain.
Charming.
Charming.
A staircase leading into the event space in the Chateau.
A staircase leading into the event space in the Chateau.

The vineyard is located in the Graves region, named so for the gravelly soil in the area.  They pick by hand to ensure quality, and use an optical sorting machine to further guarantee that only the best grapes make it into their blends.  Smith Haut Lafitte is also one of a very few wineries to have it’s own cooperage, making barrels onsite.

Bordeaux 2013 365
Beautiful fields.
The cooperage.
The cooperage.

Our guide was really engaging and informative – we began by hearing the history of the chateau, of course, interspersed with facts about the current family that owns the estate.  In 1990, Daniel and Florence Cathiard purchased the estate and put together their winemaking team.  It is a very enterprising family, as we soon learned.  Daniel Cathiard is perhaps best known as a former ski champion – a member of a famous French Olympics team.

According to company history, he had taken over his father’s chain of supermarkets in 1970, transforming it into the tenth largest mass distribution group in France, with 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets.  At the same time, he launched and developed a chain of sporting goods shops – Go Sport – in France, Belgium, Spain, and California.

Daniel met his wife Florence while on the French Olympic ski team in 1965. She then worked with him managing Genty and Go Sport for ten years before launching her own advertising firm, later becoming Vice President of McCann Europe in 1985.

In 1990, Daniel and Florence sold all their business interests to buy Château Smith Haut Lafitte. Over a two year period, they invested massively in renovating both the winery buildings and the 18th century manor house built by George Smith, where they decided to live and to devote their energy to their newfound passion: making outstanding white and red wines.

His daughters clearly caught the entrepreneurial bug as well.  Together with their husbands, one of his daughters runs the Caudalie spa and beauty and healthcare products organization, and the other runs the resort at Les Sources de Caudelie  www.sources-caudalie.com, and Les Etangs de Corot, www.lesetangsdecorot.com.

We had just learned all of this, and about Daniel and Florence’s interest in collecting modern art and sculptures (there are some great pieces on the property), when Daniel Cathiard joined us in the vat room.  A charming gentleman, he walked with us to the cellar and the cooperage, and finally to the tasting room – which was more like a living room, replete with leather couches.

As we tasted, we learned even more about the estate’s approach to winemaking.  Mr. Cathiard calls it BioPrecision, which is essentially a way of describing their marriage of bio diversity, traditional winemaking practices such as horse ploughing, along with new innovations and technology such as a satellite imagery system, to produce wines in the most natural, respectful and precise ways possible.

The stainless steel vats.
The stainless steel vats.

It was fun to learn more, and try some wines with Mr. Cathiard – especially since we already have these wines in our cellar!

The barrel room.
The barrel room.

2010 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc – Very bright floral white peaches and a little melon on the nose.  In the mouth, white peaches and melon again, but with noticeable stone minerality and wonderful acidity.  This wine just sings in the mouth.  The wine is medium bodied and has nice ripe tannins on the long stony white fruit finish.  This is an absolutely lovely white Bordeaux to drink now or to put in the cellar.  Smith Haut Lafitte is more known for their red wines, but their white Bordeaux is one to look for.

2010 Smith Haut Lafitte – Beautiful blackberry and dark red bing cherry fruit on the nose.  In the mouth, very dark ripe fruits of blackberry, black currants, bing cherries are combined with a good dose of minerality.  This full-bodied wine has very good acidity, great structure and the ripe tannins are very fine.  The wine has a nice long, sweet black-fruit stony finish.  This is a stunning wine that will age gracefully for decades.  Absolutely beautiful!

I have been buying the wines from Smith Haut Lafitte since the 2000 vintage.  The wines consistently have beautiful fruit, wonderful minerality and a very fine tannin structure that will let them age effortlessly for decades.  I believe Smith Haut Lafitte is making wines that compete directly with the First Growths and Super Seconds, for a fraction of the price.  These wines are an absolute steal in price for the quality you get in the bottle.  If you have not tried the wines of Smith Haut Lafitte, by all means, do it.  I am very happy that I have quite a bit of their wine in my cellar.  Both the red and white wines are on the must buy list.

We thought our visit was winding down, but it turns out Mr. Cathiard was just warming up. As if having had a sudden inspiration, he walked to a panel on the wall, pushed a few buttons, and we watched as the floor opened up to his private underground cellar – it was very fun and very James Bond of him.  On display was an impressive array of vintages from the estate. He pointed out the 1961 vintage, which he said was the most expensive vintage of all – the vintage that convinced him to purchase the estate.

Looks like a perfectly normal floor.
Looks like a perfectly normal floor. (Though you can see it start to separate in this photo – we didn’t know what was about to happen, so we were lucky to grab this “before” shot.)
The "ah ha" moment.
The “ah ha” moment.
I want one!
I want one of these!
Heading down for some fun.
Heading down for some fun.

He had some other very cool art in the space, though Christina had to take a step back after looking into one particularly fun installation that appeared to go on forever.

They had great art like this everywhere.  Very cool optical illusion.
They had great art like this everywhere. Very cool optical illusion.
A very well stocked cellar with some great vintages on display.
A very well stocked cellar with some great vintages on display.

Perhaps inspired by our enthusiasm for his secret cellar in the floor, as we prepared to depart, Mr. Cathiard asked us if we might like to go see his stealth cellar in the forest.  We weren’t sure what that would be all about, but we weren’t about to say no.

Before we knew it, we were on bikes, riding through the vineyards, heading into the forest…

What exactly were we getting ourselves into...?
What exactly were we getting ourselves into?

To be continued…

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