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Memories: Smith Haut Lafitte 2007

There are wines that matter to you whether or not they are great. The 2007 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte is such a wine for me. We just returned from a lovely cruise to Scandanavia and the Baltic. It was our third cruise on the Regent line. They do a great job, overall. On the past two cruises, that "great" included the wine program. This time, the wines were less impressive...but there were still some enjoyable ones.

The highlight, for me, was the '07 Smith Haut Lafitte. Many of you will know that Smith Haut Lafitte has been on a near-meteoric rise since the Cathiards bought the historic Pessac-Leognan property in 1990. They have won widespread critical acclaim and popularity, with the 2009 having achieved the magic 100 points and designation as one of the most sought after wines in the world. The 2007 is not in that category. Not only was 2007 not a ripe vintage like 2005, 2009 or 2010, it was a relatively wet one.

I know the Bordeaux publicity machine cranked out reports that fall of a vintage saved by sunshine just before harvest. And I'm sure there was some sunshine in Bordeaux. Somewhere. Sometime. But not much. And least not at SHL. That's not speculation. That's an eye-witness report.

I finished my cancer treatments in March 2007 (3 surgeries, 3 rounds of chemotherapy and 55 radiation treatments...but who's counting?!). It took until the end of summer to get any strength back. But I wanted to go somewhere that fall to celebrate celebrate life. I had never been to Bordeaux. So that's where I wanted to go.

I had met Daniel and Florence Cathiard, the charismatic owners of SHL, at Heart's Delight events in Washington, DC. Twice, they had invited me to visit and given me their cards--and the cards for Les Sources de Caudalie, their hotel in the vineyard. So I contacted them and we made reservations.

We met friends in Paris and took the TGV to Bordeaux. Impressive train! We picked up a rental car and drove to the estate. The boutique hotel overlooking a pond on the edge of the viineyard was lovely. We got there late in the late afternoon. For almost the only time while we were there, it was sunny. Sitting on the patio overlooking the pond at sunset and sipping Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc was memorable.

The next morning, we toured the vineyard and winery (including the cooperage--SHL was the first winery I had ever visited that makes its own barrels). And we tasted the wines. It was all wonderful. I was only slightly disappointed that the Cathiards weren't there.

And then I found out they weren't there at the winery because they were waiting for us at their home--the Chartreuse--on the other side of the property. Florence rode her bicycle down and met us at the gate and escorted us up the drive. Their ~300 year-old home is lovely. We ate and drank great wine in the kitchen...the location made it seem even more personal. Which, I'm sure, was the intent. The Cathiards are brilliant at doing this kind of thing, and though I'm sure we were just one little group of many they entertained that harvest, they made us feel quite special.

That night, dinner in their restaurant was fabulous. Superb food and memorable wine. All told, we spent a week visiting wineries in the area. There were others that were outstanding--Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Pontet Canet high among them--but our time at Smith Haut Lafitte was unique. And it was particularly meaningful to me because of the circumstances. It was an emotional time. In a way that's hard to describe, I was very glad to be alive...I hope I never lose that feeling.

Each day during that 2007 harvest, as we got ready for the day we'd listen as the forecast would optimistically predict afternoon sunshine following morning mist. What we really experienced was afternoon mist following morning mist.

So we weren't terribly surprised that the 2007 vintage was not particularly well received by critics or buyers. And that's their prerogative.

For us, 2007 was "our vintage." And the 2007 Smith Haut Lafitte was "our wine." We watched those grapes being harvested. We saw those grapes being crushed. We saw the barrels being made. We talked to the people who made it. All at a time that mattered.

The 2007 SHL didn't quite have the depth or complexity of many of the vintages of SHL that I have. But it had grace. It had character. And it had memories. Sometimes, there's a lot more to a wine than just taste.

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