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An Haute Spa

Merlot body wraps and healthy spa cuisine might not transform a reporter into a sylph, but a visit to Bordeaux's Caudalíe has its own rewards
 

I AM NOT ISABELLE ADJANI; no, I am not that svelte, raven-tressed French actress. Glancing at her, I realize that immediately. But as fate would have it, we're on facing chairs, wearing fluffy terry cloth robes, waiting for our next appointments. We are at France's first wine spa, Les Sources de Caudalíe, for treatments they call vinothérapie, which take advantage of the French paradox--red wine is good for your heart. Who wants to argue with that?

During my stay I undergo massages, wraps and baths; most use products made with grape seeds. I eat spa food, which normally frightens me. But Caudalíe promises a corollary to the French paradox: a spa menu with delicious ingredients, like chèvre and walnuts, can still be low in calories and fat. Moreover, I'm encouraged to drink red wine with my meals.

Eating great food and drinking great wine is my idea of the perfect vacation. And Caudalíe's Bordeaux location, in the Graves vineyards of the newly resurgent Smith Haut Lafitte winery, enticed me there. When purchased in 1990 by Daniel and Florence Cathiard, the estimable estate, which can trace its pedigree to the Crusades, was run-down, and its wines, a grand cru red Pessac-Léognan and a white, were in decline. The new owners refocused on quality, not quantity, bringing in pickers to do the harvest by hand and otherwise improving winemaking methods. Today its wines are again in demand. The influential critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., is a fan; he calls Smith Haut Lafitte "one of Bordeaux's shining success stories."

The Cathiards, along with their daughter Mathilde Thomas, 27, and her husband, Bertrand, 29, opened their luxurious hotel and spa this year. The name and the idea for the spa come from the grapeseed-based health and beauty products. Caudalíe is an obscure term, according to Mathilde, for measuring the length of time a wine's flavor lingers on the palate. When we meet, Mathilde offers her spiel on grape seeds--studies suggest that the polyphenols, or tannins, in grape seeds act as antioxidants, or protectors, against cell damage caused by nasty molecules called free radicals, produced by sun, pollution and cigarette smoke, all believed to be culprits in the aging process. The Caudalíe creams and scrubs have a cult following in France that is similar to the one Kiehl's has here. Adjani, for one, is a believer.

I check into the hotel, a cream-colored stone mansion with 29 rooms and suites. With antique fireplaces and a mix of oriental and French furniture, it evokes the feeling of an old château, remarkable since the building is new. From my room, I gaze onto seemingly endless rows of vineyards.

Inside the wood and marble spa, French country meets Zen restraint. No frumpy old women sit discussing their crise de foie, the national ailment. Lolling about are chic young Brits and impossibly slim French women. The options are familiar, except for wine treatments like the barrel bath. I immerse myself in a cocktail of grapeseed extracts and organic essential oils. It's not a real barrel, just a wooden hot tub with purple-colored water and no bouquet; I imagine my free radicals being attacked by wine. When the therapist taps me awake, I feel a bit like a raisin, but smooth out nicely with a Merlot body wrap.

During my stay, overhead showers rain down not wine but thermal waters (albeit from a spring under the property that also nurtures Cabernet grapes) while a therapist works my muscles. I should have said no to the jet hose, which the French love and I find torture. Standing naked at one end of a tiled room, I let a formerly nice young woman work my body with a stream of water that feels like a million needles pricking me painfully all over. I long for Fabienne, whose shiatsu, reflexology and lymphatic drainage massages with grapeseed oil (which supposedly removes toxins from the body) mesmerized me. Between treatments I banish my remaining free radicals by sipping slightly bitter herbal teas made from vine leaves.

In the United States, spas also focus on exercise. Caudalíe has installed a gym, but there's no need to worry about overcrowding--I'm practically alone there. I take one of the new mountain bikes for a maiden spin through the vineyard's dirt pathways, narrow as a bowling alley in some places, and 10 times as long. "Why don't you employ personal fitness trainers?" I ask Mathilde, who runs and rollerblades. With a laugh, she explains: French women are lazy, they don't exercise.

But they eat well. Except, perhaps, when it comes to Caudalíe's detoxification diet, the cure de raisin. Offered during the harvest months September and October, this program has you eating grapes--and only grapes--for three to seven days, all day long (under medical supervision). I know it isn't for me when I hear you can't drink coffee, tea or wine--just water.

I am more interested in the Caudalíe paradox: how could lunches and dinners be both wonderful and contain only 500 calories, including such desserts as strawberry sorbet and an apple tart? The answer is portion control. The French would rather have a small amount of something delicious than endless quantities of low-fat food that is ultimately unsatisfying. I'm not eating as much as I normally do, yet I never feel underfed.

With two Michelin stars in his past from Les Feuillants in Céret on the Spanish border, chef Didier Banyols grafts classic French techniques onto his Catalan roots. The mix shows, especially in his fondness for garlic and tomatoes, which, he notes, are healthy for you. I particularly like a warm terrine of ripe pears and oven-dried tomatoes, a lovely pairing of sweet and tangy,and a salt cod dish with aïoli de pommes. For the aïoli, Banyols purees cooked apples (quince in winter), instead of eggs, and adds some olive oil for flavor. The result is low cal but creamy enough to cling to the fish. He also uses vegetable broths adroitly to keep meat and fish moist and to add flavor to his food without upping calories.

Banyols oversees two restaurants; one, La Grand Vigne, is formal, and the other, La Table du Lavoir, where the spa meals are served, is casual. Though wine at meals is optional, I did not come all the way to Bordeaux to drink mineral water, thank you. Over one lunch, Mathilde and I sip a 1997 Smith Haut Lafitte, a medium-bodied wine with a deep ruby-purple color and lots of fruit. One glass of wine a day, two at the most, is good for you, she explains. Young wines, she insists, are better for you, as they contain more of the "p word," polyphenols. Plus, you can chill young wines, so they'll go well with a salad--a must in spa cuisine. (A companion who opts out of the low-cal program can take a wine class while you spa.)

The most stressful part of my otherwise relaxed stay is avoiding the restaurant gastronomique, La Grand Vigne. But one night I get real and say, "Why bother resisting?" I feast on a fricassee of tiny scallops called pétoncles, clams with chanterelles and pig's trotter and a main course of veal that shows my devil-may-care approach to calories. When I sample the chef's signature dessert, nettle ice cream with red pepper crème and caramelized eggplant, I feel no guilt, knowing I will go back to a spa menu the next day.

Even so, there is nothing to stop me from ordering wine from the 10,000 bottle cellar, even on the spa plan. And I sleep better knowing Caudalíe has a bar called The French Paradox.

Caudalíe rates high on my pleasure meter. I even shed a few pounds. But I still don't look like Isabelle Adjani. Maybe I need to return for the cure de raisin, or at least another glass of the château's 1997 Smith Haut Lafitte.

Janet O'Grady, editor in chief of Aspen Magazine, visits spas in wine country as often as possible.

Published December 1999
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