Château Cos d’Estournel in St-Estèphe is a landmark in more than one way. The wines, too, are distinctive. A mix of elegance and power with a slightly exotic edge, they are among the best that can be found in Bordeaux today...
Owner Michel Reybier
Area St-Estèphe, Bordeaux, France. 91 hectares
Varieties Cabernet Sauvignon 60%, Merlot 40%
Average age of vines 35 years old on the average
Soils Thin layers of gravely soil for the Cabernet Sauvignon vines and limestone for Merlot vines.
Average production 200,000 and 380,000 bottles depending on the vintage
Château Cos d’Estournel in St-Estèphe is a landmark in more than one way. The extraordinary pagoda-like edifice, complete with gargoyles and carved door from a palace in Zanzibar, makes a striking statement in the bleak Médocain landscape. The wines, too, are distinctive. A mix of elegance and power with a slightly exotic edge, they are among the best that can be found in Bordeaux today.
Cos in the old Gascon tongue means ‘hill of pebbles’ and that is where the vines are planted. About 20m above the marshy lowland on the opposite side of the tiny Jalle de Breuil (stream) from Château Lafite Rothschild, a mound of quaternary gravel atop a limestone bedrock provides the ideal terroir for the 91ha (hectare) vineyard. The aspect is south, southeast facing, the free-draining gravel ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon (60%); on the slopes where the clay is more prominent, Merlot (40%) can be readily adapted.
Louis Gaspard d’Estournel may have been ignorant of the physical properties of the land but he realised good wines could be made from it. From 1811 he vinified grapes from the few vines he had inherited at Cos separately from other parcels he owned, and started to expand the vineyard. Cos was his work and vision, but he died in 1853, two years before his achievements were crowned with second growth status in the 1855 classification.
In the interim he more than contributed to the reputation of the wine. Quality was one of his mantras, and another reason for Cos’ rapid rise in estime. His fascination with India led to the sale of the wine on the subcontinent, the construction of the pagoda-like cellars and the presentation of a mature wine labelled ‘Retour des Indes’ (Returned from India) for barrels of Cos that made the round trip by boat to and from Bombay. His investments eventually led to crippling debts and he was forced to sell Cos to London bankers Martyns in 1852.
Repeated sale and purchase followed with the Basque Errazu family acquiring the property in 1869, the Charmolües, owners of Château Montrose, in 1889 and Fernand Ginestet in 1917. Ginestet’s grandson, Bruno Prats, managed the estate from 1970 until it was sold to the Merlaut family and Argentinian investors in 1998. Two years later it was acquired by the present owner, French food manufacturer Michel Reybier.
The 28 years of astute management under the tutelage of Bruno Prats has been crucial to the continuing success of Château Cos d’Estournel. Prats, a qualified agronomist, realised early on that investment in the vineyard held the key to the quality of the wine. The 1970s were difficult financially but he set in motion a long-term programme of restructure. This included planting the right grape variety, clone and rootstock in the right place, replacing missing vines, correcting the nutritional balance of the soil, and forming and educating a team of vignerons to handle tasks such as pruning and trellising in a precise way. ‘My father built the foundations for the continuing success of Cos,’ says Jean-Guillaume Prats, manager of the estate since 1998.
The quality of the grapes is quickly evident when tasting the wines. The colour is always deep, the nose and palate charged with fruit but elegantly displayed with a fine, spicy fragrance. The high percentage of Merlot provides a rich, fleshy texture, but there’s also plenty of Cabernet nuance. The tannins are powerful but ripe and increasingly refined, providing plenty of ageing potential. The seductive nature of Cos makes it an atypical St-Estèphe, with perhaps a glimmer of Pauillac also in its bearing.
Work in the vineyards has continued under the direction of Jean-Guillaume Prats with yields being essentially cut. ‘We’ve experimented in some of the best parcels with yields of 25, 40, 45 and 55 hl/ha and found that 40–45hl/ha provides the most satifactory results.’ Cos now produces a yearly average of 240,000 bottles instead of the previous 360,000. Added to this are 100,000 bottles of the second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos.
Jean-Guillaume Prats continues to fine tune the machine his father built but in his own way. He has formed a new team of oenologist, cellar master and vineyard manager and is not shy of taking inspiration from the Right Bank. ‘Quality in Bordeaux over the last 10 years has been led by producers like Hubert de Boüard, Jean-Luc Thunevin, Alain Vauthier and Stephan von Neipperg,’ he says.
Yields are perhaps one reflection of this but there has also been change in the cellars. The Merlot now has a cold pre-fermentation maceration, post-fermentation maceration has been extended, and – very much in tune with certain Right Bank producers – the wine is aged on lees from the moment it goes into barrel until the July after the harvest, without any racking.
The two largest projects Prats has in hand, though, are the construction of new cellars, and experimentation with oak treatment. Plans for the cellars are well under way, with a projected completion date of the 2005 harvest. The new building will contain not only a fermenting room but also barrel cellars and reception bay for the harvest, while Louis d’Estournel’s pagoda will remain as a monument to the past.
The question of procurement and use of new oak barrels needs further thought. In the 1980s Bruno Prats used a heavy toast and about 50% new oak. It was the style of the time. In the 1990s the toasting was more refined but the percentage of new oak increased with vintages like 1990 and 1995 taking nearly 100%. Marked at the time, the oak is now perfectly integrated. Recent vintages have varied from 80% for the 2001 to 60% for the 2000. ‘I’m frustrated because I know we can make a better choice with regard to cooperage and the percentage of new oak, but I just haven’t had time to truly work on the problem yet,’ explains Prats.
But these are just the fine details, for the essential quality of Cos resides in the terroir and vineyard. These are majestic wines made from high-quality fruit, as Louis d’Estournel realised a long time ago.
James Lawther is a contributing editor to Decanter.