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A Visit to Château Haut Smith Lafitte
The Beauty Continues
Since writing my last piece about Château Smith Haut Lafitte in pre-Covid times, I’ve been dying to go along and visit. Today is that day, and the only thing I know to expect is something interesting. The place has grown and grown in reputation over the last few years, and the wines are one of the main reasons for this. The other is the ambition of Florence Cathiard and her husband who have a decided vision for the winery. So far there is a wonderful clarity about that vision.
I drive leisurely to the Château, and breathe deeply because there it majestically resides in the middle of vine covered fields. It is a beautiful looking location that would seem a sin to be located anywhere else but here.
I'm told that there’s an award winning restaurant and spa (owned by the Cathiard children) facing the vines and find this almost normal.
I’m told that facial creams were made and sold locally by one of their daughters at first, but these have developed into such a prosperous business that it’s turnover is larger that the wine-producing Château.
After a little difficulty (basically I went to the wrong entrance and got lost – again) I park and find that the place is closed, except for a group of people who seem to be having a business meeting. I interrupt (and feel incredibly guilty because serious faces tell me that the business of wine is taking place) and a man who speaks excellent English (his wife is English) rings up Florence Cathiard.
She is running a little late and I found out that her assistant will come to my aid. He will take me on a short tour of the property, we will taste the wine and then go and have a little chat with Florence.
I sit making notes as the distant meeting continues (now feeling as though I’m committing industrial espionage).
Finally, the assistant turns up. He is a young, enthusiastic man who is easy to like and proves good company with anecdotes about his life in Bordeaux, the work of the hotel and spa (both growing concerns). Hotels that seem to be springing up in all the major wine areas; Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire and Alsace) and this indicates to me a family who have their minds firmly on acknowledging enotourism.
This could be because they recently bought a winery in the Napa Valley, which is something of a mecca for the wine tourist.
We go to the barrel room and see the cooper at work and I’m informed that only a few châteaux have this facility. It actually allows for a greater amount of control over the process of making fine wines.
Then we go up the tower that overlooks the property and I see sculptures everywhere. I’m told that the family tend to buy them when they produce a remarkable vintage (large if it is excellent). I point out the large rabbit.
‘It’s actually a hare’, I’m corrected and it seems that this is the mascot of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, and my guide tells me of the abilities of hares to produce lots of little hares and scare off the rabbits. A sort of procreation to induce growth in the vines.
I see the row of tree and these act as a kind of boundary between the Château and the nearby city of Bordeaux that forever incroaches on the vineyards. I’m also told that in the forest is another facility where the Château produce wines and store barrels. Our tour takes us into the various cellars and one looks as though it is almost empty.
I’m told that the barrels have been temporarily relocated to allow the final en primeur party to take place. It is a great honour and has been awarded to Florence Cathiard and Château Smith Haut Lafitte. I’m envious that I am unable to attend and wish that I’d now cleared my schedule to make it to this event.
We finally head to meet Florence and I’m taken in a Mini Moke. Ever since I was young I’ve wanted to sit in one of these (sad ambitions I know). I’m told that this is actually an electric model and used by the Château as a kind of workhorse for the company. It might be, but I found getting in and out rather difficult (perhaps it's my age). This still doesn’t dampen my enjoyment of riding in one.
When arrive at the home of the Cathiard family (they are one of the few big families of the wine world who actually live on their property. A fact I’m always surprised by because the locations are usually so beautiful that one wonders why you wouldn’t want to spend your life making wine and then staring out at the 'good life'.
I tell Florence that it’s an honour to meet her, an honour to ride in the car and that it’s another honour to be at the Château. She looks at me as though I’m a crazed stalker!
She exudes the air of a genteel lady, but I’m sure that there must be a steely determination somewhere below the surface. There is a dignity about her and an easy charm that makes one feel welcome from the start.
She tells me her age and I don’t believe her. She waves a hand nonchalantly as though I’m just flattering her, but she is living proof that this location, these wines and an enjoyment and enthusiasm for life work wonders.
We enter through the dining room, and I find out that there is a special dinner taking place and that she is trying out the menu that will be served to her guests in the wine cellar.
She shows me a giant telescope she acquired from Sotherby's. This was the property of Georges Smith, and of course it’s only correct that it’s situated in this location. Florence tells me that she sometimes uses it to make sure that her workers are doing what they should. She smiles mischievisouly, and I’m not sure if she’s actually joking.
Next, she points out two llamas that she keeps and tells me that they can eat far more grass than sheep so it makes sense to let them loose near the vineyard. Outside, she takes a bowl of food and one of them bounds towards us like a faithful hound. This is the female and I’m assured by Florence that she doesn’t spit at humans, only the male llama who seems to be keeping his distance.
Finally, we move into a comfortable area and sit tasting her opulent white wine. There's a glorious beauty and gentle strength that underpins this most welcoming of wines. Florence sits on a stool (her favourite she tells me) and we chat and laugh. I can imagine that this is a place where she entertains her friends with a mountain of stories about her days on the skiing slopes, and how Château Smith Haut Lafitte is going to conquer the world.
All too soon her guests have arrived and she has to leave and sort out the luncheon. She is a charming whirl of a person who leaves one almost breathless at her pace. If I wasn’t a fan before (I was) I most certainly would be now.
Pessac-Léognan (Grand Cru Classé de Graves)
These beautiful Cabernet grapes are almost as good as it gets and the aromas are so rich. There are an assortment of flavours coursing through this wine and these include blackberry, vanilla, earthy black fruit, pencil and forest floor.
The taste just sticks around and doesn't know when to leave, and this is one guest I'm glad that wants to stay.
7 out of 7
Like its big brother, this wine is a cracking number, and the mixture of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon is as balanced a level-headed tightrope walker.
On the nose you get lemon and honey, but hang around and there's also grapefruit with lime among a plethora of flavours
The taste gives you a creamy complexity with green fruit, melon and an inviting nuttiness.
6.5 out of 7