Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, 1947 – 2019

When I first developed an interest in wine, too long ago now for me to have any interest in counting the years, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte was one of a group of well-known châteaux – other members of this ignominious and loosely formed society included Château Pichon-Baron and Château Léoville-Poyferré, and there were certainly others – which were widely regarded as underperforming. They had histories to match any of the great classified châteaux of the Médoc or Pessac-Léognan, and they were rich in great terroirs largely planted with old vines. But in post-war Europe, without the investment, management and direction they needed, these grand old dames of Bordeaux languished, their wines pale shadows of what they might have been.

One by one these famous names were sold, and new hands took control. Like ocean-going supertankers each in turn slowly changed course, the result of persistent and committed pressure on the helm. The rest, as they say, is history, and many of these properties – Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte included – are now turning out some of the best examples of their respective appellations.

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, 1947 - 2019

Such a history means delving back into older vintages can have mixed results. Will you pull the cork on a great vintage only to find that it ultimately disappoints, the wine alive yet incoherent, mature yet hard-nosed in its attitude? Or even worse, completely dead? Or will you find the septuagenarian wine singing, as it relaxes into an elegant maturity which speaks so clearly of the quality of the terroir from which it sprang?

So I am grateful to Daniel and Florence Cathiard, the modern-day proprietors of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, who recently celebrated three decades of exerting pressure on their helm, for pulling the corks on a number of older vintages when I called in on the estate in 2022. Some of the wine came from their era, quite right too, given that they have now seen out more than thirty vintages on the estate (their first vintage here was 1991). Others, however, came from their library of older vintages, mostly acquired with the château although they have not shied away from acquiring more ancient bottles from other sources.

The tasting was in two parts, beginning with a number of vintages in red and white following the theme of ‘9’, as recent as 2019, as old as 1949. The second part included a selection of young and old vintages served with dinner, wines as young as 2017, as old as 1947. For the purposes of this report, however, I have thrown all my tasting notes together, ordered simply by colour and vintage.

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