I’m soaking contentedly in a Jacuzzi constructed out of a giant wine barrel. Set among rolling vines, Les Sources de Caudalie delivers the holy trinity of life’s finer things; exquisite food and drink, world-class spa pampering, and Hollywood stars making their arrival by chopper.
The hotel, located 20 minutes from Bordeaux, is part of an ambitious family-run jigsaw. Florence and Daniel Cathiard met in the 1960s when they were French ski champions, and went on to make a tidy fortune from a nationwide supermarket chain. In 1990, they cashed out and began their third act, purchasing the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte and producing its eponymous wine, a staple of the Graves region for six and a half centuries. It did not start well.
For five years in a row the crop was devastated by bitter winters. But then, with millions already invested, the weather switched to their advantage and they started turning out award-winning vintages. Their daughters, Mathilde and Alice, are equally determined.
Mathilde created the Caudalie skincare company, which has gone global. Alice has built upon that brand, opening Les Sources de Caudalie in 1999; Palais-grade accommodation and an accompanying spa which uses vinotherapy as the basis of its treatments. This is a pioneering concept combining the benefits of naturally warm mineral-rich spring water (from a well that’s over 540 metres deep) with those of vines and grapes, loaded with antioxidants. Treatments include a signature Crushed Cabernet scrub.
Set just across from the winery, the hotel’s 61 rooms and suites are made to look like a traditional hamlet, accented with recycled structures and materials, yet a contemporary atmosphere permeates. While the landscape is dictated by ancient vines and the soil is ploughed in the traditional way, with horses, one’s attention is caught by the monumental modern sculptures dotted around the property. Works include those of Sir Anthony Caro, Wang Du, Jim Dine and, perhaps most eye-catching of all, a huge humanoid hare by Barry Flanagan, which guests have been known to mount after an evening’s refreshment.
The airy bedrooms are inspired by the Atlantic, which is only 45 minutes away, and are filled with a combination of bric-a-brac, antiques and design pieces that give it a fresh and relaxed feel. The standout suites are the L’Ile aux Oiseaux, a summer house on stilts balanced over the lake, which was reinvented by one of France’s leading wedding designers, and Le Pigeonnier, a duplex suite standing in the centre of a pond, which has been taken by thespian-newlyweds Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.
Like all the most exclusive properties, the staff at Les Sources de Caudalie are disinclined to divulge the names of previous A-list guests. Alice, even, is resolutely tight-lipped. I am therefore grateful to her mother for being not only such a charming host – she and her husband invited me to their chartreuse for afternoon tea – but for her glorious and endearing lack of discretion.
Tom Cruise didn’t stay in the main hotel but a mile up the road in the Chateau Le Thil, which once belonged to the mayor of Bordeaux and is now the Cathiard’s, and available to guests on a single room or whole house basis. Cruise was, Madame Florence describes, “like a ghost”, never to be seen. Fair enough, it’s his holiday. But TC seemed to do himself a disservice by eating nothing but muesli. That’s all he wanted, apparently, despite the talents of chef Nicolas Masse and Caudalie’s double Michelin-starred restaurant.
The bodyguards weren’t of such monastic appetite and the movie star was left looking a little hard done by when, on the last day, he unwittingly interrupted his minders chowing down on extreme gourmet fare. So, a few weeks later, Cruise returned – sharing a helicopter with Cameron Diaz – and finally took up residence in La Grand’Vigne dining room.
Thoroughly deserving of its two stars (the Michelin ones I mean, not Tom and Cameron), the actor was right to return. Masse’s deceptively simple cooking brings out the intrinsic flavours of this sunny region. For less formal fooding, there is La Table du Lavoir, a country bistro under 18th century roof timbers salvaged from Medoc wineries. Its name comes from having been a 19th century washhouse used by the vignerons’ wives. Meat roasting in the large period fireplace releases odours that’ll trigger your salivary gland as soon as you walk in.
Masse hosts cooking classes, while the head sommelier, Aurelien Farrouil, will prime you with all the descriptive loquacity needed to become a connoisseur. There are several tasting rooms that will make the contents of your glass taste even more satisfying. The cosy French Paradox bar (named after the statistically proven positive effects of wine consumption, though I guess that’s in moderation) has a clubby feel, while the best view comes courtesy of the Tour de la Degustation – literally, the tasting tower – which overlooks the whole 78 hectare domaine.
The most exclusive tasting room is called Paradise, and is accessed through a secret hydraulic trap door in the floor of the winery. Here they keep the most precious bottles. Since getting the low-down on Tom Cruise, I keep thinking about how I could help myself to their 1878 vintage with the aid of acrobatic wires. This, for now, will remain my mission impossible.
Les Sources de Caudalie’s lingering taste is enchanting and serene, rich with the tannins of bucolic luxury. If you wish to relax with a glass in your hand I cannot think of anywhere better.