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Bordeaux 2019: Château Smith Haut Lafitte

Written by JW. Posted in Bordeaux

Château Smith Haut Lafitte has once again come up with the goods in 2019. The whites are rich and full bodied and the reds have the characteristic plush quality that is a signature here. The Grand Vin red is fabulous. The fruit is super seductive and joyful and there is considerable depth to the wine. Stylistically technical director Fabien Teitgen reckons it’s three quarters 2016 combined with a quarter 2015. Certainly the 2019 has greater freshness and more acidity over the coquettish 2018 here, the result of the fractionally cooler conditions in August and September in 2019. Overall, despite these vintage differences, there is remarkable consistency here, year after year. Under the ownership of Florence and Daniel Cathiard, Smith Haut Lafitte has become one of Bordeaux’s benchmarks for brilliance and this is true again in 2019.

The growing season at Château Smith Haut Lafitte began precociously. February was warm and bud burst in March was three weeks earlier than usual. Temperatures then cooled such that by flowering the growing season was only one week early. After this period the weather was fine and sunny, with a heat spike at the end of June, followed by another at the end of July, the latter being more problematic for the vines. The combination of hot temperatures and dry conditions at that stage caused issues. Temperatures reached 42C in the shade and there were problems caused by water stress on the young vines with shorter root systems.

At the end of July, beginning of August there was some rain – around 80mm in total across three spells – which in the circumstances was really transformative. This gave the vines the chance to breathe but also for veraison to work through. Then the weather changed towards the end of August and into September. It remained dry but was somewhat cooler, a full degree cooler than the same period in 2018, although still above the average. This was significant for the characteristics of the vintage, as the estate believes it gave greater freshness and helped retain more acidity in the wines over 2018. “Obviously 2019 is a warm vintage with ripe grapes but one with good acidity,” believes Teitgen. The harvest began on 17th September and concluded by October 10th. Vintage conditions were close to ideal, with no real pressures.

The key to the reds, Teitgen believes, is the creamy, supple texture they look for in the tannins. In order to get the Rolls-Royce tannin profile that they are after, they work hard in the vineyard with canopy management, and also harvest in small blocks and micro vinify these separately. The 2019 Grand Vin, for example, has somewhere between 35-38 separately fermented micro plots that make up the blend. This detailed and precise approach is key. In wine growing terms the property is certified organic, with biodynamic approaches, and is trialling various natural techniques to help vine health. In winemaking terms they are also looking for less extraction in the cellar than a decade ago too.

For the whites, the approach here is looking for a profile not dissimilar to the reds, the aim to make balanced wines but with substance that have the body and texture to go with food. They started the harvest for the whites on 27th August, fearing drop in acidity. This didn’t happen, partly because the white vineyards have northern exposure so do retain freshness but also the temperatures turned out to be a fraction cooler than anticipated. The white harvest finished on 16th September.

The white winemaking at Smith Haut Lafitte is gentle. The grapes are pressed under nitrogen and given a slow press across 3-4 hours, looking to extract carefully the richness from the grape cells immediately beneath the skins. The juice is then cold settled, with some Bentonite fining before undergoing the barrel ferment. After twelve months ageing on lees, the wine is then sat in tank for three months following blending to help integration. The results speak for themselves. Both Smith Haut Lafitte and Le Petit Haut Lafitte have richness and generosity in 2019. Le Petit Haut Lafitte has more peachy fruit qualities but also has has texture and concentration. The Smith Haut Lafitte white is super composed, with floral notes on the nose, and a substantial, textured palate. For Teitgen, 2019 is not a racy vintage like 2017 or 2013 with all their zap and buzz, but one with more body, akin to 2016 with greater acidity. I think I’d agree with this.

I asked Fabien about the changes at Smith Haut Lafitte over the past decade. There has been the move to organic growing and the increased precision in the winemaking discussed. Picking dates are perhaps a little earlier now too, and they are looking to extract less. “Some vintages you have to go and make the wine,” Teitgen says, “but in the good years, the wine makes itself in the cellar. You need to guide it, but we try and do less and less.” Obviously, they are always trying new things upstream of the cellar operations in the vineyard, but in terms of cellar handling, these days less is always more.

The following wines were tasted in June 2020 from samples sent to London.

Le Petit Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Léognan, 2019

Silver straw; white peaches and melon; some wax; lovely and clean; mineral tones to; really attractive; lovely tautness on the palate; nicely balanced with some race but also weight. Feels textured and with good concentration on the end. Moreish white! [80% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sémillon, 50% new oak, 32 hl/ha]. Tasted June 2020. Drink 2021-2028. 91-93+

Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Grand Cru Classé de Graves, Pessac-Léognan, 2019

Silver straw, brilliant in the glass; little tight to start with; some white melon and floral hints; little apricot; really super composed; full entry; feels substantial on the palate; lovely white this; spot on; has great texture on the palate; real intensity and wonderful length. Saline finish. Super length and breadth on the palate. [100% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon Gris, 50% new oak, 32 hl/ha]. Tasted June 2020. Drink 2022-2032. 96-97+

Le Petit Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Léognan, 2019

Deep colour; lovely plush aromatics; black fruits but real freshness; summer fruit compote; a delight; brimming with fruit; sweet entry; this is lovely – such a joy now – plush fruit on the palate; has depth but the emphasis is on the joy – delicious. Excellent effort. [60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 36 hl/ha, 20% new oak]. Tasted June 2020. Drink 2022-2032. 93-94+

Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Grand Cru Classé de Graves, Pessac-Léognan, 2019

Super colour; really vibrant; deeper; more cassis and blackcurrant intensity; that earthy aspect but still totally pure. Layer upon layer of fruit here; terrific on the nose; seductive; bags of fruit on the palate too; real extract; terrific stuff. Real depth and chew. Loads of matter – pretty serious, yet somehow also plush: blackcurrant and plum tones dominate on the palate. Great length. Super wine. [40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, 60% new oak, 36 hl/ha]. Tasted June 2020. 97-98+


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