Tired of the business world, Daniel and Florence Cathiard ‘retired’ to a run-down Graves château. They’ve won round critics and consumers, but will they ever be accepted by the Bordeaux establishment asks MARGARET RAND
Florence always sees the glass half empty, says Daniel Cathiard. Daniel always sees it half full, says Florence. We’re sitting in Daniel’s office at Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the château they bought from négociant Eschenauer when it had a hole in the roof and a vineyard exhausted from the too-generous application of chemicals over too many years. They resurrected the vineyards, resurrected the wine and resurrected the château, in the process giving birth to a Vinothérapie spa with a hotel and restaurants, which in turn has spawned seven other spas and a couple of hotels, plus a line of cosmetics. Their daughter Mathilde runs the spas, their daughter Alice the hotels.
It would be perfectly reasonable for Daniel and Florence now to sit back and let their children keep them. Reasonable, but not the sort of thing the Cathiards do. Instead they’re discussing whether a glass ceiling exists in Bordeaux for Smith-Haut-Lafitte. It does, definitely, says Florence. ‘I know we’ll never be above it.’ It does not, says Daniel. ‘One can spend two generations, but we have such an advantage. We have the best Gunzian gravel. We have the best terroir.’ Florence: ‘We can’t do anything even if we’re making the best wine in the world. It’s not enough. You need heritage.’ Daniel: ‘We have one of the best soils in Bordeaux. We work hard, we hire the best people, we’re not so bad at marketing. It will take time, but it will turn to success.
There’s no glass ceiling.’ Florence: ‘There is, definitely. We will never be a first growth. We don’t have the weight of history.’ Daniel: ‘I don’t think about being a first growth. There’s no limit for quality, and the price will follow.’ Florence: ‘That’s what the garage wines thought.’ Daniel: ‘Florence always sees the glass half empty.’ It is, one senses, an argument they have had before. And it illustrates a great deal about Smith-Haut-Lafitte: its skill in marketing and in building contacts around the world, which is Florence’s department; and the steady, often inspirational, work in vineyard and cellar, which is Daniel’s part, and which has made it one of the stars of Pessac-Léognan. It also illustrates a lot about the Cathiards: they’re ambitious, and they’re visionary. They’ve also known each other a long, long time. They met in 1965, when Florence was 14 and Daniel 17. ‘She was very nice at 14,’ grins Daniel. They were both in the French national ski team, and they’re both extremely competitive. Three years later you could have found Florence on the barricades in Paris. Both her parents were teachers, and she had an aunt who was a professor at the Sorbonne, so family gatherings at that time must have been interesting.
Daniel’s family had a supermarket business, Genty, which he inherited and expanded until it was the 10th-largest distribution business in France, with 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets. He also launched a chain of sporting goods shops, called Go Sport, in Belgium, Spain and California as well as France. Florence worked in both companies, and then launched her own ad agency. In 1985 she became vice-president of McCann Europe.
It was all a long way from wine, except that one day they realised they had both passed through the same airport on the same day without knowing it. This, they decided, was not the way to live. Daniel sold the business, and Florence took a sabbatical year. By the end of it they’d decided that what they wanted was a classed growth château in Bordeaux just below first growth level; and during a helicopter ride from Pontet- Canet to Clos Fourtet they spotted Smith-Haut-Lafitte. This was in 1990. The early years were taken up with nursing the vines back to health, via organic methods and lower yields – and of course putting the roof back on. ‘Daniel took two good decisions,’ says Florence. ‘One was that he uprooted the vines where the spa is now. We’d paid $1m per hectare, and he took away 5ha
(hectares). In our first year, 1991, we’d had frost; in 1992 terrible rain. Only 1993 was okay. Daniel at this time took away some vineyard and replanted it on the other side of the road, where there’s very good gravel.’ There are 8ha there now. ‘The second good decision was that Eschenauer had the northern part of the estate, where there is clay, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and it didn’t ripen. So we changed it and planted Merlot there, and put Cabernet across the road, where it’s breezy, sunny and warm.’
These two moves, though they may sound less than exciting to an outsider, laid the foundations for the new Smith-Haut- Lafitte. Florence reckons the 1995 vintage was the one where the red wine hit its stride; the white, she says, was good from 1992. But nothing is ever good enough in Bordeaux: it’s a hugely competitive place.’ You have to be in the 30 best wines every year,’ says Florence. And all the time everybody around you is improving. The better you are, the harder you have to work to show even a tiny improvement. This, in itself, doesn’t deter them: they’re both highly competitive. You don’t, presumably, get into national ski teams without having a killer instinct. ‘I like ambitious people,’ says Florence. But they’re nevertheless very different from each other. It’s Florence who’s there at every tasting, flawlessly bilingual, and with an equally flawless contacts book. Building contacts, building relationships. They hosted the Fête de la Fleur, Bordeaux’s annual glamorous wine dinner (think marquees, fireworks, floodlights) last summer, and the guest list was eye-watering. And Daniel? He’s forceful too, but more relaxed, less of a worrier, less prone to fret – and he seems happy to leave the pressing of the flesh to her. He’s done a lot of different things in his career, including some hair-raisingly dangerous sports. ‘Whatever I do, I do completely,’ he says. The work Daniel is doing now is all about giving Smith- Haut-Lafitte a stronger signature; making it, if you like, more like itself. Organics and biodynamics are part of this, though Daniel isn’t obsessive about either. ‘Every time I think I will reach another quality level by going bio, I do it. If not, I stop.’ In the deluge of July and August 2007, for example, he sprayed against rot; ‘otherwise I would have lost the crop’. (There was a silver lining to the bad summer, however; the Bordelais, trailing disconsolately back from the seaside at Arcachon, went to the spa instead, and turnover was up 15%.) The better matching of grape variety to soil is part of the improvement, and Daniel is slowly replanting, with 10,000 vines/ha instead of the 6,000 they’d inherited. Some of the new vines are propagated in Daniel’s nursery, where he grows massal selections of both rootstocks and scions; again, it’s part of developing the wine’s individuality. In the winery technical director Fabien Teitgen is taking more risks: they don’t crush the red grapes now, and instead ferment the berries whole, with Burgundian-style pigeage. This makes, he says, for a longer, slower, more dangerous fermentation dangerous because the berries can still contain sugar when the sugar in the juice is exhausted, but it gives more complexity to the wine. There’s a risk of brett, admittedly, but now people are starting to say out Florence and Daniel Cathiard have transformed the wines at Smith-Haut-Lafitte, but they differ over how far they can go. He claims there’s no limit, she says they’ll always be outsiders loud that a touch of brett may be no bad thing, and Teitgen is prepared to take the risk. The temperature in the underground chai has been cooled to 13ºC to make it slightly safer to use what Teitgen regards as more natural methods. They also bleed the red wine tanks to produce a saignée rosé, a wine that Daniel complains he never gets a chance to drink at the château: Florence hates it. She says rosé isn’t wine. The white, too, has changed. It still contains 5% Sauvignon Gris, a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, which gives power in the mid-palate and a spicy finish. It must be partly responsible for the exotic note to be found in Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc. Equally importantly, Teitgen has lowered the yield and raised the maturity of the white grapes, so that now ‘we hide the wood behind the juice’. The impression is of less wood and more substance in the wine.
The second wine is Les Hauts de Smith, and the 2004 white is supple, silky and almost Burgundian in texture, with a touch of honey and truffles. The white Smith-Haut-Lafitte which, to Florence’s chagrin, is not classified, is deeper and richer, with great subtlety and complexity. Its exoticism is not of the New World variety, though there’s a pineappley note on the 2005, and there’s nothing obvious about it; it’s minerally and very long. It’s 90% Sauvignon Blanc, and only 5% Semillon. The red, which is about 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, is a lovely balance of classicism and modernity. There’s always some spice there; you could describe it as opulent, but it’s more interesting than that, and it’s more fun than classic lead pencils and cigar boxes – though it has them, too. And it’s moreish: you don’t leave your glass half full here. Or half empty.
Written by Margaret Rand