Art of the vine

Offering an elevated form of wine tourism, Les Sources de Caudalie, is an enchanting spa retreat hidden away on the Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte estate in Bordeaux. As well as a stand-out Caudalie spa, a Michelin-starred restaurant and cellars fit to burst, it’s keeping the magic alive with the opening of a new tranche of luxury suites.

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Through the immaculate rows of the vineyard something shiny catches my eye. It looks odd amongst all this green. Moving closer, I see it’s an oversized sculpture of a bounding hare, which glares down at me, imperious in its elevated position. The bronze, which turns out to be by Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan, sits proudly outside the entrance to Les Sources de Caudalie, a glorious spa retreat found in the heart of Bordeaux’s Châteaux Smith Haut Lafitte wine estate. As I turn back to look at the view, I catch a glimpse of another work of art, peeping out of the vines. This time it’s an unlikely sculpture of Venus de Milo (by American pop artist Jim Dine, I later discover) and I wonder how these pieces of contemporary art came to reside in this bucolic French setting.

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It’s an incongruity that seems to be part of the fabric of Les Sources de Caudalie, as well as its charm. At first sight, for instance, this impressive hotel – with its seemingly aged outbuildings and picturesque lakes – could date back hundreds of years. In fact, it was first opened in 1999, designed by architect Yves Collett to emulate the traditional villages in Aquitaine, south-west France. Family-owned and run by husband and wife duo, Alice and Jerome Tourbier, the hotel is much like a mini hamlet with 49 rooms and suites (all individually designed), two restaurants and the flagship Caudalie spa spread out across historic-looking buildings. In fact, these were all created from scratch using recycled materials, such as salvaged beams from local properties, to keep it ‘in tune’ with the natural environment.

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“We wanted a hotel that makes the most of these beautiful surroundings,” says the impossibly chic Alice, casting her eye around the manicured landscape. “Contemporary architecture wouldn’t have worked here. We wanted character but with an ‘of the moment’ sensibility. After all, we are modern hoteliers and want to appeal to an engaged type of traveller – someone who is well-versed in what is happening in the world but who is searching for something a little different. Ambience and authenticity is everything.”

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This approach certainly explains the visually inspiring art that is dotted around the grounds as well as the focus on food that has won the family a Michelin star via its Grand’Vigne restaurant. The culinary offering is no doubt a major attraction, with both restaurants headed up by renowned French chef Nicholas Masse. Grand’Vigne is housed in an ornamental greenhouse based on an 18th century model and has gained its reputation because of its simple yet gourmet take on local specialties, not to mention a serious wine list sourced from the 16,000-strong cellar. While this is formal dining of the highest kind, by contrast the bistro-style Le Table du Lavoir oozes character and soul. Roaring fires, exposed rafters and beams, antique linen tablecloths and mismatched crockery make for a joyful environment, while the inventive menu – mushroom terrine, chitterlings tart, pork loin confit with polenta – is thoroughly heartwarming.

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The couple’s philosophy also explains the continual ‘enhancements’ the pair has made since opening. Last year, for instance, saw the launch of 11 rooms at La Chartreuse du Thil – a beautifully converted 18th century manor house tucked away in the grounds, giving guests another option as to where they rest their heads.

Meanwhile, the latest development – and by far the most impressive – comes in the form of the Village des Pecheurs (Fishermen’s Village), made up of 12 new suites, a pool house and Rouge, a hip, all-in-one tapas-style eaterie, bar and gourmet shop.

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Built in a style to echo oyster-fishermen’s huts on stilts typically located in Cap Ferrat, the suites are found in a collection of characterful buildings made out of what looks like wattle-and-daub, weathered beams and ancient red-brick roofs topped with jolly weather-vanes. Clustered around a small lake, they are linked by bleached, wooden walkways edged with reeds and tall grasses. It’s skillfully executed as, of course, everything is actually newly built.

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Inside, the décor is Hamptons’ beach house with a dash of 1950s chic. No two are the same but all are fresh, modern and light-filled. My suite had whitewashed wood-panelled walls juxtaposed with bold, coral printed wallpaper. The industrial lighting, a forest-green Charles Eames DAR armchair and an eclectic art wall, featuring butterflies encased in glass and photographs of seaside scenes from the nearby Arcachon Bay, give masses of personality. My double-roomed bathroom was expansive yet understated. Grey slate, shimmering copper tiles and an iridescent wallpaper made for the perfect backdrop while I settled down to sample the bounty of Caudalie products provided. Each room also has its own terrace – mine overlooked the vast vineyards – giving guests room to breathe and take in the sumptuous surroundings, not to mention indulge in a glass or two of the superior house red.

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Talking of which, it is evident that the wine at Les Sources de Caudalie is its raison d’être. Alice’s parents – Daniel and Florence Cathiarde – both ex-Olympic skiers for the French national team in the 1960s – kicked off the dream when they bought the Chåteau Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard in 1990. Over the next two years, they invested heavily in the run-down winery, built around an original 18th-century manor house, and began to make notable wines. As their reputation grew as serious winemakers – it’s now a Grand Crus classified label – their daughters had their own ‘light-bulb’ moments, inspired no doubt by the ‘go get’ attitude of their parents.

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The eldest, Mathilde Thomas-Cathiard came up with the concept of the Caudalie spa and beauty brand, and now owns eight Vinotherapy spas around the world, including the brand’s first opening at the hotel and the world-renowned product line. The 1,500m2 spa found in a rambling, barn-like building offers a zen oasis with outdoor and indoor pools, sun terraces with barrel-bath hot tubs and scenic views over the vineyards – the grapes within reach – as well as 20 treatments rooms over three floors. It goes without saying that treatments are based around the vine and grape-based Caudalie products with the Crushed Cabernet Scrub and Winemaker’s Massage being the signature therapies to try.

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Alice, meanwhile, together with her husband, thought of the idea of building a hotel that would be in keeping with the vineyard’s history and both have worked tirelessly to see it to fruition. Not short of energy, in 2008 they also launched a secondary venture – a sister property called Les Etangs de Carot – found in Ville D’Avray, on the outskirts of Paris.

“Since the beginning, we’ve been involved in all aspects of what it means to be hoteliers,” says Alice. “From the interior design to what’s on the menu – it’s our passion. We’ve definitely been bitten by the hotel bug. Above all, in both our properties, our aim is to be sensitive to the environment and encourage our guests to get to the heart of their location – be it Bordeaux or Paris. We want them to connect with a place’s cultural heritage.”

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As a result, there are cruises on a traditional pinasse boat along the Bassin d’Arcachon, bicycle tours around the Chateau’s vineyard and a knock-out Art and Vine tour during which guests can hear the stories behind the monument sculptures of the estate. Oenophiles can also book tours of the cellars, enjoy interactive wine tours and have tasting lessons with head sommelier Aurélien Farrouil in the winery’s spectacular Tasting Tower. For those who want to carry a little piece of Les Sources home, some of the label’s finest vintages can also be found in the newly opened Rouge where a huge wall of bottles offer some of the best wine the cellars have to offer, as well as other local vintages. The tapas-style eaterie and wine bar also serves sharing and tasting plates reflecting the ‘terroir’ of the region – from foie gras to stuffed squid, Iberian hams to cep mousse, and is a laid-back, urban-style space.

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Also bringing in an urban feel is the new pool house, which marks the entrance to the ‘Fishermen’s Village’ and is housed in an impressive timber-framed glasshouse that can be opened up in warmer months. It boasts a funky photo installation by artist Mathilde de l’Ecotais at the bottom of the pool, which appears to change colour at different times of the day. Commissioned by Alice, it’s another example of the family’s penchant for art found in the unlikeliest of places. Explore the estate on the official tour or simply meander around by yourself, and you’ll come across an impressive range of sculptures dotted around. Many have been commissioned by Alice’s parents to celebrate a good vintage. It seems to me the perfect way to illustrate the whole family’s ‘glass-half-full’ mentality.

Stays at Les Sources de Caudalie new suites from €650 per room per night on a B&B basis.
Les Sources de Caudalie, Chemin de Smith Haut Lafitte, 33650, Bordeaux-Martillac, France. Tel: + 33 (0)5 57 83 83 83;

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