25 years of wine passion: Florence and Daniel Cathiard at Château Smith Haut Lafitte
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
Château Smith Haut Lafitte, the grand cru classé of Graves – and later Pessac Léognan, when the appellation was created in 1987 – has been run for 25 years as of 2015 by the innovative couple Florence and Daniel Cathiard.
I have known the Cathiards since 2002, and long have I admired their energy and passion to vitalize the entire Graves region.
Their wines are pretty darn good, too. And have been getting better in the last few years, with a trend towards greater classicism – for both reds and whites.
I first encountered their red, just after it had been bottled, at a horizontal 2000 vintage Bordeaux tasting, hosted by Robert Parker in March 2003 in Washington D.C. There were many wines that day. At the end of the tasting, I had the chance to take a couple of remaining unfinished bottles home. I grabbed the Smith Haut Lafitte and Pontet Canet: both excellent in 2000. As you can read in my tasting notes to the 25-vintage vertical, the 2000 Smith Haut Lafitte remains superb today.
Why I have a soft spot for Graves
Smith Haut Lafitte produces reds and whites – as other estates do in the Graves region. In many ways, Graves is my overall favorite part of Bordeaux, and not just because one can find both reds and whites.
The pomp and circumstance of Medoc’s grands châteaux is not to be found in Graves. No, it is more a relaxing and gently hilly environment – even understated – and thoroughly charming. Wine lovers can enjoy “hidden gems” like Domaine de Chevalier, illustrious yet country squire-like estates at Carbonnieux, refined elegance in both wine and architecture at Haut Bailly, and, of course, distinguished architecture (and wines) in the middle of Pessac at Pape Clement, Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion.
Unlike the gorgeous village of Saint Emilion, where you have nevertheless litigation and recrimination over 10-year reassessments to their classification, Graves comes across as more egalitarian and genteel. Not as much as Pomerol mind you, which has no classification, but Pomerol is tiny by comparison. And I have a soft spot for Graves, as it (along with neighbor Sauternes) was the very first region I examined in detail in Bordeaux, back in 2001.
How the Cathiards have contributed to the Graves landscape
The Cathiards have done much to add new dimensions to the Graves landscape, whether via their world-class, Michelin-rated restaurant La Grand’Vigne or original sculptures in their vineyards.
Indeed, after enjoying a 25-vintage vertical of all-magnum bottles (reds and whites), marking their 25 years at the estate, participants – including luminaries like famous French critics Bernard Burtschy and Michel Bettane, and esteemed wine writers and authors Jancis Robinson and Jane Anson – enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the restaurant.
Chef Nicolas Masse has developed close relationships with local fishermen, livestock breeders, and market gardeners on the Atlantic coast and in the Graves countryside.
They supply him with seasonal produce. Over the 25-year anniversary dinner, participants enjoyed some truly fine foods that he prepared such as gorgeously fresh langoustines and tender Pyrenees lamb. Over the dinner, we enjoyed – from magnum – the 1998 and 2005 reds and the 2006 white. While enjoying the wines, I did not take as careful notes as I did for the formal tasting. But the 1998 was very fine, with tannins now integrated and smooth, although not as precise as the 2005, which I think is a superior all around vintage at Smith Haut Lafitte. As for the white, 2006 was not a great vintage for whites, and yet the Smith Haut Lafitte – coming from a magnum – showed fine freshness.
Speeches were made for that special occasion, and I took a short – sorry for the choppy quality and low volume – video of Daniel Cathiard, during which he said that 25 years is both “a long and a short time” – but a blip for Bordeaux’s long history, but a long time for his wife and himself, for the work that they have invested.
He explained that he and Florence have had to meet rigorous challenges in Bordeaux, the high standards of the region, and that they have tried to raise the level of the wine’s quality, already at a high level. And that – after they leave the scene – future generations will have to take up that responsibility themselves.
Well said, Mr. Cathiard. And well done!
The couple’s two daughters have created related businesses that build on the appeal of the estate. Younger daughter Alice Tourbier-Cathiard and her husband, Jerome, manage the next-door hotel complex Les Sources de Caudalie – which features the famous Vinotherapie® Spa. The treatment rooms are designed to harmonize with the vineyard landscape – and give relaxation lounges a distinctive style. The link to wine is in treatments with grape skins, such as the 35-minute “Crushed Cabernet Scrub” that apparently helps to regain the skin’s radiance and softness.
Indeed, the spa features worldwide famous skin care products Caudalie managed by elder daughter, Mathilde Thomas-Cathiard, along with her husband Bertrand.
I have enjoyed staying at Les Sources de Caudalie on several occasions. The setting is very pastoral and relaxing, situated next to a small pond.
And the Source de Caudalie not only features the gourmet La Grand’Vigne restaurant, but also the more casual La Table du Lavoir, which serves delicious bistro-style food. I recall enjoying a great dinner there in the summer of 2012, when my mom, sister and niece came to visit Bordeaux, along with friend and famous Bordeaux author Jane Anson and others. We had a prime rib of beef that was juicy and memorable. And the good wine flowed.
So my memories concerning this estate have been all positive. Such as staying up late at the French Paradox bar, during the 2005 en primeur campaign – in April 2006. It was 1 am and an American buyer, drinking a cocktail, talked about which wines he was planning to buy to me and fellow wine writer Adam Lechmere. After we moved to the cigars room, he then proudly pronounced that he was getting up at 5 am to… get a workout. For some reason, that sticks in my head as well as the fine ambiance.
Another fond memory: having a 1995 Smith Haut Lafitte red served into a vine root shaped carafe by owner Florence Cathiard, back in 2005.
Supporting the entire appellation
It is no secret to people who follow Bordeaux that the Cathiards faced resistance to their plans for developing the estate. Several years after they had first arrived, I recall talking with friend Frederic Lot (with whom I did some writing back in the early 2000s) who now reports on wine for French television channel France 3 and is “community manager” for Millésima Wines.
“They are perceived as outsiders by many in Bordeaux,” he told me back in the early 2000s.
Today however, the Cathiards are welcomed.
“Nous faisons partie des meubles,” remarked Daniel a few years ago, when I spoke to him about how neighbors feel about their work in the region.
But don’t take his word for it. Over lunch at the end of en primeur week this past April (2015), I enjoyed talking to Eric Perrin about his lovely and affordable reds and whites from Château Carbonnieux – and I asked him about Smith Haute Lafitte.
“The Cathiards have been great,” he said. “We appreciate their work in rallying together the entire appellation in recent years with joint tastings,” he stressed.
Indeed, I have been to such tastings, including one at an earlier barrel tasting a few years ago. More memorable have been tastings the Cathiards have hosted for special occasions, including a marvelous 2013 end-of-the-harvest celebration. Because it took place in early December, Christmas as in the air, so the Cathiards had carolers singing for assembled guests before dinner – and just after we had a chance to taste through many fine estates from Graves, including Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion.
So yet another great memory! You can see at my table in the short video some other well-known Bordeaux people, from Eric Perrin to Sylvie Cazes, who currently directs Château Chauvin in Saint Emilion.
More great events are coming. The Cathiards will host a dinner just before the official start of Vinexpo in June 2015 as well, complete with wine tastings.
So for the “short” 25 years of Smith Haut Lafitte, under the helm of Florence and Daniel Cathiard, there is nothing short of a hearty Bravo! and Thank You! that they both deserve.
Brief notes of previous history at Smith Haut Lafitte
The estate has a long history, like so many other Bordeaux châteaux. The noble Bosq family started to grow grapes there as early as 1365, according to the château’s website. Scotsman George Smith, who gave the estate his name, purchased it in the 18th century. He built the manor house and exported the wine to England on his own ships.
In 1842, Mr. Duffour-Dubergier, then mayor of Bordeaux and an enthusiastic winegrower, inherited Château Smith Haut Lafitte from his mother and brought the wine up to great growth status.
Impressed by Smith Haut Lafitte’s excellent quality, the Louis Eschenauer company distributed the wine all over the world, starting in the early 20th century, and then purchased the estate in 1958.
After the Eschenaueur period came to an end, the Cathiards invested their aforemented time and money to further develop the estate and the wines, including with the construction of a superb underground cellar, holding over 1,000 barrels. It has been the site of many magnificent tastings and dinners on behalf of the entire Pessac-Léognan appellation.
About Florence and Daniel Cathiard
Daniel Cathiard was perhaps best known as a former ski champion – he was a member of the famous French Olympic team including Jean-Claude Killy, Guy Perillat, and Léo Lacroix. Jean-Claude, a great lover of fine Bordeaux, was the first person to sign the visitors’ book at the château. Like countless others, I have also signed my name to thank the Cathiards for their hospitality.
After the death of his father in 1970, Daniel found himself running the family’s small supermarket chain. Within 20 years, he transformed the business into the tenth largest mass distribution group in France – with 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets. But not content to stop there, Daniel developed a chain of sporting goods shops – the famous Go Sport – in France, Belgium, Spain, and California. His group employs some 9,000 people.
He met Florence while on the French Olympic ski team back in 1965. Florence then worked with him managing Genty and Go Sport for ten years before launching her own advertising firm, becoming Vice President of McCann Europe in 1985.
It was in 1990 that the couple sold all their business interests to purchase 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.