Decisions, decisions. Should I have the Crushed Cabernet Scrub or the Pulp Friction Relaxing Massage with Fresh Grapes? Or maybe the “Premier Cru” Anti-Ageing Treatment?
I would love to have the celebrated Grape Blossom-Scented Massage for Two – “… in the same room as the person of your choice” – but reason that perhaps it’s a bit too short notice to ask Cameron Diaz to join me. In the end, then, I plump for a solo Barrel Bath with Red Vine Wrap. My charming vinotherapist glides off to get some towels and the relevant unguents with the promise of a Fresh Grape Hand Treatment later if I’m good.
It’s a weird and wonderful place, Les Sources de Caudalie, a satisfyingly swish hotel and spa set in the grounds of Château Smith Haut Lafitte’s grand cru classé estate in Pessac-Léognan, just outside Bordeaux. Unlike the New World, the French have been slow to embrace the concept of wine tourism but those who have, have done so with open arms.
“Everyone thought we were crazy when we started,” admits Alice Tourbier who manages the hotel with her husband Jérôme. “Wine tourism just hasn’t really developed yet in France and it was tough persuading the locals that we were serious. We’re now in our 11th year, though, and it’s been a huge success with folk coming from all over the world to walk among the vines, drink the estate wines, and those of our rivals which we’re equally proud to serve, and to enjoy our trademark vinothérapie treatments. In vino sanitas.”
It’s very much a family affair. Alice’s parents, Daniel and Florence Cathiard, who met in their teens in the French Olympic ski team, bought the run-down Château Smith Haut Lafitte from Brent Walker in 1990. In a few short years they transformed it by rebuilding the château itself, restoring the 16th-century tower, replanting much of the underachieving cabernet sauvignon with merlot, constructing new cellars, reinstating hand-harvesting and horse ploughing, and by being as organic as possible. The wines (red and white) are better than ever and their efforts have recently been recognised by über-critic Robert Parker, among others, who gave the 2009 vintage its highest mark yet: 96-98+ out of 100.
“We are thrilled by the recognition but my God, it’s been hard work!” Florence exclaims. “I’d never even been to Bordeaux before we bought the estate and we had no real idea what we were taking on with no experience at all in wine. We wanted a challenge though and that’s exactly what we got. We had endless setbacks such as frost in 1991 and rain in 1992; it took us five years to work out what the heck we were doing.”
The estate’s renaissance coincided in 1995 with the launch by the Cathiards’ eldest daughter, Mathilde, and her husband Bertrand Thomas, of Caudalie, a cosmetics company whose vine and grape-based products make much of the antioxidant power of grapeseed polyphenols. The instant international success of Caudalie led in turn to the concept of Les Sources de Caudalie hotel and spa, run by Mathilde’s younger sister, Alice.
“This seemed doomed from the start too,” Florence grimaces. “We opened on April Fool’s Day and everyone thought we were just that – fools. The local château owners came and said: ‘we don’t mind you ruining yourselves, but don’t ruin us’.
“The chef and sommelier loathed each other and were at each other’s throats; a waiter ran off with a girl from the spa leaving us short-handed and some old trout turned up with two sick cats, SPA in France standing for La Société Protectrice des Animaux, like your RSPCA. It was a disaster!”
But that was then and this is now. After my invigorating three treatments at the spa I’m sitting exhausted with Florence in La Table du Lavoir restaurant, glass of delicious grapefruity, apricoty, blossomy 2007 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc in hand. It’s a Monday night and the place is packed.
“All those who first sneered at us are now happy to come here,” Florence says. “And we’re happy to see them because they’re friends. And besides, we sell a lot of their wines. It’s now the core Pessac-Léognan restaurant. Just look how many winemakers there are here tonight.”
Travel around the wine lands of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or California and you will see scores of estates with restaurants, tasting rooms and bottle shops attached, not to mention the occasional hotel. In France, though, this is seldom the case and Château Smith Haut Lafitte and Les Sources de Caudalie are blazing a welcome trail.
It’s a fine spot and no mistake. The estate’s wines are sublime and if there’s a better reward for a day spent browsing and sluicing and tramping around vineyards than a Body of Your Dreams Honey and Wine Wrap, then pray lead me to it.