BORDEAUX, France — When Daniel and Florence Cathiard first laid eyes on Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte more than a quarter century ago, it was love at first sight, despite the chateau's run-down condition and spotty reputation.
The couple met while they were on the French Olympic ski team in the 1960s. They took on other endeavors, and years later decided to sell their massive supermarket chain, one of the largest in Europe, as well as a successful sporting goods business, to purchase the chateau.
It was a bold move, even though the property was historic (the first grapes were grown there in 1365), and even though it had maintained its Grand Cru Classe status within the Graves district of Bordeaux after going through some rough patches.
Smith Haut Lafitte is located in the village of Martillac, south of the city of Bordeaux in the Pessac-Leognan AOC, which was carved out of the Graves district some years ago. It is one of a handful of Bordeaux chateaux whose white wines are considered more prestigious than the reds, although in recent years, its whites and reds have largely been at par in world markets.
The Cathiards have been excellent stewards of the estate since buying it in 1990, renovating the cellars and building a technical team that rivals any in Bordeaux. But despite their determined efforts toward restoration and innovation, the early years were difficult.
"Our first few vintages, '91, '92 and '93, were a challenge," said Florence Cathiard, rolling her eyes at the memory of three very sorry vintages they produced when they were just beginning to learn the wine business. "It wasn't until 1998 that we felt like we were gaining some momentum."
Through those early years, Florence and Daniel offered guests overnight accommodations at the chateau. "It was so successful that in 1999 I decided to open a hotel," said Daniel.
Thus, Les Sources de Caudalie was born. This now-world-famous hotel and spa specializes in what it calls vinotherapy treatments. It is situated amidst the Smith Haut Lafitte Vineyards across the street from the chateau, has its own underground mineral hot spring, and produces spa and skin products made from vine and grape extracts. The hotel boasts a Michelin two-star restaurant called La Grand'Vigne.
One of the Cathiards' two daughters, Alice Tourbier-Cathiard, oversees Les Sources de Caudalie and one other hotel. Their eldest daughter, Mathilde Thomas-Cathiard, has built a worldwide empire of Caudalie beauty and health care products.
The success of Les Sources de Caudalie and Caudalie cosmetics has hardly slowed Florence and Daniel from elevating Smith Haut Lafitte's position in the Grand Cru Classe level of the competitive Bordeaux wine environment. If anything, they are more committed to their wine business than ever, which is reflected in the steady development of both the SHL blanc and rouge labels over the past 25 years.
SHL Technical Director Fabien Teitgen is one of the most respected winemakers in Bordeaux, and his decisions on yields and selection hold sway, even though they sometimes clash with Florence Cathiard's desire to produce more first-label wine to meet market demand. Cathiard oversees the chateau's commercial side, and sometimes winces when Teitgen makes a decision that reduces the volume of first wine available for sale.
Teitgen has been with Smith Haut Lafitte for more than 20 years, and deserves much of the credit for the steady rise in the chateau's wine quality. His fierce vineyard selection, which guides much of the chateau's grape production for the second-label wines, Le Petit Haut Lafitte and the Les Hauts de Smith, ensures that the first wine, the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Grand Cru Classe, is made from the estate's finest grapes.
"It is painful to me sometimes," said Cathiard. "But I know Fabien needs to do this to make the first wine the best that it can be."
Florence's admission drew a huge smile from Teitgen as we tasted barrel samples from 2015, the most recent vintage. It was clear from the side-by-side samples that the first wine was the choicest cut, although the second labels showed very well and, reinforced the general consensus that the 2015 was an exceptional vintage, almost on par with the 2005 and 2010.
And if anyone needed any more evidence that the Cathiards aren't resting on their laurels, they rolled out samples of the 2015 Chateau Beauregard from Pomerol and the Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne from Sauternes, their most recent acquisitions.
For these two former Olympic skiers, life in the fast lane is all they know.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.