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Wine: France, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

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White to red

Former skiers Florence and Daniel Cathiard have spent the best part of three decades transforming the fortunes of a derelict wine estate in the Bordeaux region of France

G raves? A gently undulating countryside in south-west France, Graves is the oldest wine-growing appellation in Bordeaux. It is home of the original ‘claret’, a rich savoury red with notes of leather and tobacco that was first exported to England when Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to Henry II.

Graves is also seat of the most ancient wine estate in Bordeaux: Château Pape Clément, founded in 1300 and named after Pope Clement V.

The medieval châteaux of Graves make the grands châteaux of Médoc to the north seem like 19th-century upstarts. Graves was producing claret fit for kings when the arriviste Médoc was but a swamp only inhabited by frogs and herons.

At the pinnacle of Graves stands Château Haut Brion, Graves’ ‘first growth’, which Samuel Pepys referred to as: ‘A sort of French wine that hath a good and most particular taste’. Unlike the other appellations of Bordeaux where red predominates, Graves also produces fine whites and ‘stickies’, notably Château D’Yquem.

Into this venerable viticultural vortex stepped Florence and Daniel Cathiard, an entrepreneurial power couple, who in 1990 bought Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Graves sub-appellation of Pessac-Léognan. Smith-Haut-Lafitte is one of 16 Graves châteaux that are classified as Grands Crus.

The Cathiards were outsiders: he, from the northern Alps; she, from the southern Alps. Skiers in the French national team, they had met on the slopes when they were teenagers. On the death of his father at 50 in 1970, Daniel, then 25, found himself in sudden charge of a portfolio of 10 supermarkets in south-east France branded Genty-Cathiard. He swapped ski jacket for grocer’s apron.

‘We worked like crazy,’ says Florence, speaking in the elegant salon at Smith-Haut-Lafitte. ‘We opened bigger supermarkets and took risks.’

The Cathiards caught the last years of Les Trente Glorieuses, the post-War boom, just before dirigiste French socialism took hold. Within 20 years, they had transformed the business into 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets. Meanwhile Daniel sublimated his love of sports into Go Sport, a chain of sports shops; Florence branched out into advertising and rose to become vice president of McCann Europe.

The Smith-Haut-Lafitte winery is a miniature Gormenghast dating back to 1365

Crisscrossing Europe on his ‘n’ hers agendas ultimately proved depleting, so when, in 1990, the Casino supermarket group offered to buy both Genty-Cathiard and Go Sport, the Cathiards cashed in. Liquidating their entire business portfolio, the pair decided to buy the ‘totally derelict’ Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

Why? Had they never heard the adage about how to make a million in the wine industry? OK, Daniel’s grandfather was a wine merchant, and Florence’s grandmother had been a viticulteuse, but... a distressed grand cru château? This was going way off-piste.

Worse, the Cathiards had only ever visited Bordeaux once. The sum of their knowledge of wine was what Jean-Claude Killy, former ski teammate and triple Olympic gold-medallist, had told them over a glass of red Bordeaux the evening before the slalom.

‘The only alcohol we drank was red wine,’ says Florence. ‘When we got married, we didn’t want a bourgeois wedding list; just good bottles of red Bordeaux.’

The Smith-Haut-Lafitte winery is a miniature Gormenghast dating from 1365. Successive owners have quixotically added extensions, towers, turrets and mock fortifications to produce today’s baroquely eccentric architectural anthology.

Originally, the estate provided wine for local consumption. The eponymous George Smith took over in the 18th century and built an adjacent manor house where the Cathiards now live. Smith exported wine to England aboard his own ships. In 1842, Lodi Martin Duffour-Bubergier, mayor of Bordeaux, inherited the estate from his mother.

‘We were lucky,’ says Florence. ‘We were well advised. It is a great terroir. Now it is our life.’

In the early 20th century, Smith-Haute-Lafitte caught the eye of Louis Eschenauer, the wine distributor and Nazi collaborator. He held the estate from 1958 until he sold to the Cathiards. ‘We were lucky,’ says Florence. 'We were well advised. It is a great terroir. Now it is our life.’

The Cathiards’ first vintages were disastrous: frost in 1991, rain in 1992, another wash-out in 1993. In an unnerving flashback to a previous career, the duo were going downhill fast. By 1994, ruination beckoned. In 1995, however, the turnaround began. At last their wine brought pleasure, not merely pain-relief.

Over five years, the Cathiards invested heavily, renovating vineyards, winery and manor house and implementing a philosophy of state-of-the-art ‘bio-provision’: using natural grass, organic compost and horses for ploughing. ‘We want the best of nature,’ says Florence, ‘and the best of technology.’

They excavated one of the largest underground cellars in Bordeaux, with capacity for 1,000 barrels. They celebrated each vintage by commissioning a piece of sculpture for the estate. ‘Some of the pieces are very small if the vintage is not so excellent,’ says Florence. ‘In other years, they’re huge.’ The sculpture collection now runs to 28 pieces.

One of the Cathiards’ great success is the white wines of Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Although grown on only 11 hectares, the rich yellow-fruit aroma, mineral backbone and great length of these wines have been recognised over the past 15 years as among Pessac-Léognan’s finest.

‘We have eight working horses. Machinery would be too heavy on the soil.’

Perhaps the greatest impact on the estate is a 61-room hotel that the Cathiards have built, named Les Sources de Caudalie. Hotels in the Bordeaux winelands are scarce. The Bordelais sell only to négotiants – middle-men. This cuts out the need for direct contact with distributors, retailers and the general public. Consequently, the Bordelais feel no great compulsion to be hospitable.

The Cathiards, however, have embraced hospitality. Rallying the entire appellation by hosting joint tastings with other producers, they have won respect. Now, as Daniel Cathiard has said, ‘Nous faisons partie des meubles’ (‘We’re part of the furniture.’).

The Cathiards’ younger daughter, Alice Tourbier-Cathiard, runs Les Sources de Caudalie with her husband, Jerôme. This rustic hotel comprises a main house, orangery, various annexes and dormitory buildings, all built of timber and set beside a pond. It is the perfect spot to decompress and fall apart. A large vegetable garden supplies the kitchens of the excellent La Grand’Vigne restaurant. There are goats, chickens and Percheron draft horses. ‘We have eight working horses,’ says Alice. ‘Machinery would be too heavy on the soil.’

This pastoral idyll wraps a substantial ‘Vinotherapie’ spa – having restored Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the Cathiards offer their customers the chance not only to restore themselves but also undergo a Cathiard-style personal rebirth – built in the style of a local tobacco farm.

One senses larger hotel ambitions stirring. Alice Tourbier-Cathiard also looks after Château Le Thil, an elegant 1737 mansion set in its own parkland a short cycle ride from Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

The Cathiards have added a third hotel, Les Etangs de Corot, located between Paris and Versailles. Meanwhile, the family recently bought yet another château, this time on the Loire, which is undergoing an 18-month restoration into a fourth hotel.

As of four years ago, the Cathiards have even been renovating and running, on behalf of its owners Galeries Lafayette, Château Beauregard in Pomerol, considered among the top wines of this appellation.

I asked Alice why her parents chose to go into the wine and hotel business. ‘Ha! They thought they would relax!’.

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2018

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