On Wednesday I met with Jean-Guillaume Prats, General Director of Château Cos D’Estournel, for a tour of the winery and a tasting of the 2008 vintage. Cos D’Estournel is a Second Growth (1855 Classification) Saint-Estèphe Grand Cru Classé. In fact Cos is the highest classified estate in Saint-Estèphe. The current owner is Michel Reybier of Domaines Reybier. The estate manages 160 acres of vines formerly broken down into 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. A parcel of Merlot was recently pulled and new Merlot vines were planted, which will not be ready for harvest for a couple of years, so the above figures are not quite accurate. The current production is around 200,000 bottles for the first label and 130,000 bottles for the second label, Pagodes de Cos. Additionally, as of 2003, Cos added a third label, Goulée, which is a Medoc AOC. Domaines Reybier also owns Château Marbuzet in Saint-Estèphe, and just three months ago Mr. Reybier purchased Hetszolo, a well-known estate in Tokaj, Hungary.
Cos D’Estournel was founded in 1811 by Louis Gaspard D’Estournel. Until his death at the age of 91, Mr. D’Estournel’s life was devoted to nothing but growing the eminence of the Cos brand. By the early to mid 19th century Cos was already commanding prices often times higher than the famed First Growths. The estate exported as far as India and in fact the Indian influence is quite apparent today. The estate’s façade is inspired by Indian architecture and the estate’s mascot (if you will) is an elephant. Elephant sculptures and miniatures can be found everywhere throughout the estate. In 1852, the estate was sold to Martyns, a London banker, and changed hands two more times before being bought by Fernand Ginestet in 1917. Mr. Ginestat was a leading Bordeaux wine merchant at the time. His grandsons, Jean-Marie, Yves, and Bruno Prats, ultimately inherited the estate. Bruno Prats managed the operations from 1970 to 1998 before selling the estate to the Merlaut family. However, only two years later, in 2000, the estate was sold to the current owner Mr. Reybier. Jean-Guillaume Prats, Bruno’s son, began working at Cos in 1996 and by 1998 he took over as General Manager. Thus before the age of 30 Jean-Guillaume was running one of the world’s most powerful wine estates.
Until recently Cos wine was characterized as having an atypically high proportion of Merlot for a left bank red—up to 40%. This added to the characteristic fleshy and rich texture of the wine. I questioned Mr. Prats on this issue, interested in the strategy or philosophy behind the higher than average usage of Merlot. He responded two-fold. Number one, all wines are tasted blind before blending and clearly the single objective at Cos is to produce the best quality wine possible. It just so happened that the proportion of quality Merlot grapes in the vineyard was such that the final blend typically favored a higher than normal amount of Merlot. Number two, this tendency recently changed, as a sizeable parcel of over-aged Merlot vines was pulled to make room for a new batch. Thus today the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot is much higher. As a perfect case in point, the 2008 vintage has a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Alas, Cos never had any bias in favor of Merlot. The estate simply strives to make the best wine in Bordeaux, year in and year out.
Technology also plays a large role at Cos. Mr. Prats made a point of emphasizing that technology is not used in any way to interfere with the winemaking. Rather technology is used as a medium to minimize intervention with the wine as much as possible. The estate owns the most state of the art viticulture and winemaking equipment in the world. One advantage this provides Cos is found in its GPS-powered micro parceling vine management. Thousands of GPS sensors are spread throughout the vineyard, allowing for Cos to maintain a pinpoint accuracy when it comes to all vineyard activities up to the harvest date. Thus the grape selection is conducted micro parcel by micro parcel. Regarding vinification, this is where it gets really interesting. To sum up Cos’ winemaking operations in two words… HOLY SHIT! Please excuse the informality, but I’ve personally visited 55 wineries in 7 countries throughout my short stint as an amateur wine expert, and this place was jaw dropping. In addition to the fact that Cos is the most beautiful estate I’ve ever stepped foot on, they spent the last two years completely renovating their winery. Mr. Prats explained that the new winery was a product of eight years of brainstorming and planning. The result? Arguably the most technologically advanced wine estate in the world. Mr. Prats noted that the new winery has a much higher productivity, requiring less people, however, requiring much higher skilled workers.
Again let me reiterate that the concept behind each technological improvement is not to intervene in any way that would prevent the grapes from going through their natural journey from vine to glass. The harvest is still 100% manual and once the grapes enter the winery gravity takes over. The facility was built in such a way that 100% of the winemaking operation from dropping off the grapes at the winery to the bottling is driven by gravity. No pumps are needed. The wine is tampered with as little as possible, avoiding any potential disruption in the natural development of the wine. Mr. Prats pointed out that there are less than five wine estates throughout the world operating a 100% gravitational system.
Upon arrival at the winery, the grapes enter through a liquid CO2 cooling tunnel to limit the possibility of unwanted oxidation during the de-stemming process. Additionally, the tunnel allows for a cold pre-fermentation maceration to begin. Once in the cone-shaped stainless steel vats (first time I’ve ever seen this), throughout the roughly 8-day maceration, a délestage (rack-and-return) process is carried out. There is an elaborate high-tech set up of conveyors and elevators that allow for the large vats to be racked and refilled without the use of pumps, which pose a risk of destabilizing the wine. From here the wine follows the laws of Newton into the barrels where aging proceeds for 18 to 22 months in roughly 80% new oak for the first label, Cos D’Estournel. The 2008 vintage was the first bottling in Cos’ new facility. So I felt quite privileged. I tend to be over-dramatic, but I really felt like I was tasting history being made in a glass. Quite an unforgettable experience.
Throughout my discussion with Mr. Prats we touched on a few more interesting topics. I questioned him about the percentage of the harvest that ultimately ends up in the first label versus the second label Pagodes de Cos. I noticed a rather large difference between Lafite and Cos, in that at Lafite much less than 50% and as low as 35% of the harvest is used in the first label in top vintages. At Cos 78% of the harvest was used for the first label in 2008. Mr. Prats’ response was quite clear and to the point. Cos has such a high level of technology implemented in the GPS vineyard management system that the estate is capable of achieving a micro level of precision and optimization throughout the grape selection.
Regarding the 2008 vintage Mr. Prats described the 2008 Cos as a wine shining with fruit, not as tannic as the 2006, with a round and silky texture, high acidity, and overall a complete wine. He equated it in style to a small version of the 2005; however, regarding the quality, he noted that it’s too early to tell.
Below is a summary of my tasting…
Blend: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) Aged in 50% new oak. 13.8% ABV. The nose on this wine is quite green and slightly vegetal, with aromas of unripe red fruit, currants, minerality, stones, and licorice. This wine is acidic and slightly astringent, producing a course texture. There are flavors of fresh fruit, berries, black cherries, mineral, and chocolate from the mid palate to the finish. I wasn’t too into this wine.
Rating: 12-13/20 (WS 87-90)
Price: ~25€ in France
2008 Pagodes de Cos
Blend: 53% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) Aged in 50% new oak. 13.5% ABV. A big, rich, and elegant nose, expressing a subtle greenness; however, thankfully more expressive with black fruit, mineral, and plum. This wine is silky and juicy, showing good balance, good acidity, and medium tannins. Chocolate comes out on the mid palate and blackberries and plum linger throughout.
Rating: 14/20 (WS 87-90)
2008 Cos d’Estournel
Blend: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) Aged in 80% new oak, this wine has 13.8% ABV and 3.6 TA and I found it interesting that the average yield for the vintage was 27 hl per hectare, compared to the typical figure of around 40-50. So this is a concentrated wine. The nose is beautifully rich and elegant, expressing notes of bright red and black fruit, currants, brambleberry all around, spice, herbs, marmalade and even a very subtle note of pepper after a few minutes in the glass. On the palate this wine is thick, fleshy, expressing a silky velvety texture and an amazing balance of acidity and medium to full tannins. There are flavors of chocolate, blackberries, and blueberries. This is an outstanding wine that will age for decades.