During Bordeaux Primeurs this past spring, we were thrilled to be invited to lunch at Château Smith Haut Lafitte. When we arrived, Daniel Cathiard himself stood at the entrance. Immediately, although it had been 55 years since they had last seen each other, Daniel and Michel greeted one other like old friends. Hugging, back slapping and even shedding a few tears, the two immediately began to reminisce about their childhood home.
In the tiny village of Uriage, near Grenoble, Michel’s parents ran a small hotel, while Daniel’s family owned a grocery chain. Daniel says that his earliest interest in wine was peaked by the barrels of deliciously pungent wine his grandfather, a wine merchant, kept in their stores.
In the Alps, everyone skies. Michel was an excellent skier, but Daniel was superb and competed on the French National Team in the late 1960’s. His teammates included some of the most talented champions of the era: Jean Vuarnet (known today for his famous sunglasses) Charles Bozon and the legendary Jean-Claude Killy!
Also on the team was a lovely young girl — Florence was 14 when she first met Daniel in 1965. After they married, the two channeled their energetic, competitive ski style into managing the supermarkets Daniel had inherited. Their Genty chain became the 10th-largest distribution business in France, with 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets. They also launched sporting goods stores called Go Sport. Later, Florence even established her own advertising agency.
It was an empire that required constant travel and time away from home and family. So, the two decided to make a change. Daniel had always been intrigued by wine. And, thanks to Jean-Claude Killy, their interest in Bordeaux had grown. It turns out that Killy always drank a glass of Bordeaux the night before a big race. He advised Daniel and Florence to do the same, thus fostering a love of Bordeaux.
In 1990, after extensive exploration and evaluation, Daniel and Florence bought historic Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a property that dates back some 800 years, producing both red and white varietals, a feature the Cathiards found particularly appealing.
Verrier Du Boscq planted the first vineyards in 1365 on a gravelly plateau referred to as Haut Lafitte. Several centuries later, Scotsman George Smith took over the estate and added his name.
In the mid-1800‘s, Lodi-Martin Duffour-Dubergier bought the property. A wealthy and successful negociant, Duffour-Dubergier was also appointed Mayor of Bordeaux by King Louis-Philippe I. It was a position Duffour-Dubergier took seriously and he worked tirelessly to improve conditions in the city and to develop commercial opportunities throughout the region. Ultimately, he left his home and art collection to the city of Bordeaux, now called the Musée des arts décoratifs et du design.
Particularly significant, with regard to Château Smith Haut Lafitte, is that during the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855, Duffour-Dubergier was President of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. Because of his stature and influence in the region, he was reluctant to promote his own Château, a property many feel today could have easily been classified as a First or Second Growth. Later, in the 1953 and 1959 Classifications of Graves, Château Smith Haut Lafitte was finally listed as a Grand Cru Classé estate.
As we tour the SHL cellars with Daniel, he stops before a bust of Duffour-Dubergier and affectionately pats the statue. “He was a great man,” he says. “I admire the fact that he never used his position and connections to promote himself and his estates. And then there are other days,” he adds, smiling wryly, “I wish he had!”
RECLAIMING A LEGEND
From the 1970’s on, Château Smith Haut Lafitte was neglected by various owners and allowed to decline. When Daniel and Florence bought the estate in 1990, there was much to improve. The Château had holes in the roof and the vineyards had been doused with chemicals. The two new owners set about renovating and upgrading their property — and of course given their competitive natures and business acumen, the changes were monumental.
The Cathiards invested millions in the vineyards, implementing organic techniques for the 78 hectares (193 acres) and replanting as necessary. The 6,000 vines originally on the property grew to become 10,000.
Mechanical harvesting ended immediately and additional staff were hired to pick grapes by hand. Daniel devised an ingenious system of ergonomic hoods — based on a design used by Himalayan Sherpas — to protect grapes in transit to the winery for vinification. Once in the processing areas, grapes were sorted and destemmed by hand and, more recently high-tech optical sorting scanners used as well.
The Cathiards also hired experts to advise them. Bordeaux legend Emile Peynaud initially assisted with the winemaking, along with Pascal Ribeyreau-Gayon, Denis Dubourdieu, and finally Michel Rolland, who continues to work as a consultant. “We had almost no expertise when we took over,” the Cathiards acknowledged to us. “But, we entered wine as we entered religion. It took almost eight years of tastings, but eventually we could really rely on our own good palates.”
During our tour, Daniel leads us into his cooperage, an enterprise built at considerable expense in 1995 that also placed SHL in the esteemed company of Châteaux Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion, all of whom produce their own barrels. Daniel explains that his coopers construct approximately three barrels a day, enough to fulfill all the estate requirements. When we ask where the wood is sourced, he tells us it’s from the famous Tronçais and Limousin hardwood forests, originally planted by Louis XIV. We expected nothing less!
Not surprisingly, the couple constantly upgrade every aspect of their facility and winemaking processes, taking advantage of the latest technology. SHL was one of the first properties to employ Oenoview satellite imagery to observe the vines as they mature and to harvest at the most optimal moment.
Smith Haut Lafitte is also one of the few properties in Bordeaux to maintain rootstock and to graft its own vines — all this in an extraordinary effort to develop the most productive and appropriate clones.
In 2012, Château Smith Haut Lafitte received its first 100-point score for the 2009 vintage. Daniel and Florence were ecstatic as the wine price doubled and the estate finally received serious recognition. When we asked Florence and Daniel about subsequent vintages they referenced their previous lives on the slopes as a metaphor: “Competition with the best wines of the world is as stressful and demanding as starting a downhill race! But every year has it own rewards. 2019 is turning into a great year. If you have a look at our five labels, you will see we still are challenging ourselves. ”
FORGING A VISION
Perpetual innovators and experimenters, the Cathiards are never content to simply make great wine. As Florence remarked, “We are always pioneers, revising our strategies all the time.” So, in 1993, after a visiting professor mentioned that grape seeds are powerful antioxidants, the family, which included daughter Mathilde by this time, seized on the notion and began to produce a line of anti-aging beauty products. They called the cosmetics Caudalie, which Daniels explains, refers to the “duration and length of a wine’s finish.”
Certainly, the Caudalie products have endured and prospered. The line is sold internationally and its enormous success prompted Mathilde, and her husband Bertrand Thomas, to open a hotel and spa on the Smith Haut Lafitte estate. Les Sources de Caudalie has developed into a 5-star property with two restaurants — and two Michelin stars. Additionally, there are seven more vinothérapie spas and some 39 Caudalie Boutique Spas located around the world.
In addition to the vineyards, beauty products, spas, hotels and restaurants, the Cathiards are avid art collectors. Florence is especially passionate about the works of art she and Daniel have chosen. “My parents were intellectuals and opened my eyes to paintings at first,” she explains. “We like big 3D sculptures because our vines and forest are perfect for showcasing the contemporary pieces we like. For years it was an intimate collection, but now interest in our art has grown and we are happy to share it all.”
Currently there are 18 large works of art placed around the property. Barry Flanagan’s Leaping Hare, purchased over 10 years ago, is perhaps the most iconic and best known of the installations. A more recent acquisition is a kinetic sculpture that Florence and Daniel commissioned from American engineer Chuck Hoberman. Entitled Nousaison, the sculpture is an expandable sphere that opens and closes to represent berries maturing on the vines.
In addition, to the sculptures situated around the Château and vineyards, Florence and Daniel have extended their displays to the forest bordering their estate. Here, sculptures have been placed throughout the 8 hectare (19.7 acre) woods. The couple named this latest project Land’Art Path and began inviting visitors in June 2017.
Each artist selects the site for his or her installation and the collection is as varied and eclectic as the sculptors themselves. A giant safety pin by David Middlebrook is titled Generation Gap. An elaborate metallic globe, called apprpriately Sphère by Jordi marks the entrance to the path. The Cathiards also host an annual event called When Art Meets Vines. Florence and Daniel feel that their “open air museum” represents their personal philosophies — respect for the environment and biodiversity.
But beyond all the obvious connotations, the Cathiard’s art collection embodies the emotional, intuitive and passionate aspects of their winemaking. Their capacity for innovation and devotion to technology is undeniable and an essential part of their success. However, it’s the “art” of making wine that is, for them, the ultimate expression of their vineyards. When we asked “What makes a great wine?” Daniel responded with this: “You can’t separate emotion and technology. Emotions can be impaired by technology and a perfect wine is boring if it lacks that special chemistry between the soul and the grapes.”
MORE TO COME
Just when we think our tour has concluded, Daniel takes us back into his office and grinning, points out a trap door in the floor. We troop down the stairs behind him to see the family’s private cellar — hundreds of bottles of priceless vintages, including a 1961 and 1947 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, bottles Daniel says convinced him to buy the property when he first sampled them years ago.
We realize at this juncture, that nothing is ever quite finished with the Cathiards. The urge to create and explore is hardwired into their DNA. So, given this dynastic energy, what’s next?
In addition to Château Smith Haut Lafitte, the Cathiards have acquired Châteaux Cantelys and Le Thil in Pessac-Léognan as well as Château Beauregard in Pomerol — all magnificent estates. There is mention of a golf course and more hotels. Recently, there were even rumors of plans to turn the carbon dioxide released during fermentation into sodium bicarbonate for toothpaste and other household products.
And yet, when asked, Florence and Daniel only smile mysteriously and say: “Our children have big projects and we have one too. But it’s all confidential.”
All we know definitively is that with this family, absolutely anything can and will happen!
We are proud to offer a number of outstanding vintages from Château Smith Haut Lafitte.
Order online, or write firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 850-687-1370 for additional information.
Petit Smith Haut Lafitte – Second Wine
Arriving in late November
2016 Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. WE 93-95. $33.99 per bottle.
2015 Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. JS-94. $29.99 per bottle.
2017 Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc (80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sémillon) “mineral and racy” WA 89-91. $39.99 per bottle.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Grand Vin
Arriving in late November
2009 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. “the perfect wine” WA-100. $249.99 per bottle.
2010 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. RP 98+ $149.99
2011 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. RP-94+. $83.99 per bottle.
2012 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. RP-95. $83.99 per bottle.
2013 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. AG 90-93. $65.99 per bottle.
2014 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. WE-96. $78.99 per bottle.
2016 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. RP-98. $109.99 per bottle.
2015 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. JS-98. $99.99 per bottle. (only 3 bottles left)
2017 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. RP 96-98+. $112.99 per bottle.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Grand Vin in Futures
Arriving in Spring 2021
2018 Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge. JD 97-100. $103.99 per bottle. (only 12 bottles left)
2018 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. JD 96-98. $109.79 per bottle
2017 Les Haut de Smith Blanc. (Usually reserved for restaurants and selling for $100+) DC-93. Our special price – $34.99 per bottle
Our sincerest thanks to Florence & Daniel Cathiard for this interview and tours of their cellars.