Just as wine regions have good and bad vintages, Bordeaux wine estates have their ups and downs. Shades of success vary from golden to black, as each estate balances precariously on the skill of the owners' direction and investment. Fortunately, Saint-Estèphe’s Château Cos d’Estournel is enjoying a golden era, despite the recent announcement that it is losing its figurehead to luxury goods company LVMH.
Jean-Guillaume Prats will quit Cos in February to become the Paris-based chief executive of Estates and Wines, the wine division of LVMH subsidiary Moët Hennessy.
There has always been a warm glow emitted by Cos d’Estournel – or Cos, as it is affectionately known. Its esoteric sandstone façade adorns one of the most elaborate châteaus in Bordeaux, which includes faux Indian turrets, oriental pagodas and elaborate carvings.
This alluring estate, separated from Château Lafite Rothschild by a babbling brook, has a history sprinkled with colorful stories. Its first owner, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel, was known as a showman. He cared deeply for the property, sending its wines around the world, most notably to India.
Nicknamed "the Maharajah of St Estèphe," he was especially well known for his parties, where he would hand out special "returned from India" bottles filled with Cos that had made the round trip. D'Estournel believed that such a long sea journey improved the taste of the wine.
What has improved the taste of Cos d’Estournel in more recent times has been the work carried out by the tireless, knowledgeable Prats – no stranger to export markets – and its rich owner, Michel Reybier.
Prats started working at Cos in 1993 alongside the then-owner, his father Bruno, a descendant of the 1917 purchaser, Bordeaux négociant Fernand Ginestet.
In 1998 – the same year that Jean-Guillaume took over as director – the château was sold to another esteemed Bordeaux wine family, the Merlauts, and a South American investor. But having two owners proved complicated, and in 2000, the push of ownership issues met the pull of an attractive offer from Reybier, and the estate was sold.
Reybier, who made his money in the food industry – most notably in sales of cured pork – was once known as the "sausage king." In 2012, French magazine Challenges ranked him as the 136th richest person in France. He now focuses on his range of boutique hotels, and next year Cos will join the line-up, opening eight luxury rooms to paying guests. Rates are not yet available, but the price of a night's stay at another Reybier hotel, in Geneva, ranges from 430 euros ($565) to 1,700 euros ($2,300).
Prats' long-standing knowledge of the estate, combined with the significant resources provided by Reybier, has seen the vineyard and the winemaking processes transformed.
In the vineyards, that has meant reducing yields, harvesting later and making very precise parcel selections, Prats explained in an interview with Wine-Searcher.
“The same in the winemaking," he said. "We are very precise and careful with aging times, choosing the right oak, the right temperatures. We also have a very modern gravity cellar that allows us to be very gentle with our wines.”
As well as paying attention to production details at home, Prats has spent time abroad promoting his wines, and is known to have racked up more air miles than anyone else in Bordeaux, with the possible exception of Latour’s director, Frédéric Engerer.
The work has paid off. The Far East is currently the biggest market for Cos, with an estimated 65 percent of its wines sold to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Prats says that in these markets, where prices for first growths have reached unprecedented heights, the estate has benefited from being “first-growth quality at lower prices.”
Asian-based wine merchant Andy Tan agrees, saying that Cos has had the “upper hand” in Asia for a long time, thanks to the fact that Prats began promoting the wine “way before any second or third growths realized the potential” of the market.
According to Tan, Cos has other advantages in Asia: Its name – written in Chinese as 爱诗图堡, is seen as “very poetic and feminine” and is also easy to remember, “the great maharajah story (Chinese love good tales attached to a wine), and the high merlot content of about 40 percent.”
Despite differences of opinion over the kind of rich, ripe style Prats likes to produce, no one doubts the wine's quality. And his professionalism is such that most believe his departure for Moët Hennessy will not affect the quality of the wines.
“I would think he’ll be leaving the recipe book behind, so I doubt there will be any quality issues to worry about when he goes,” says a British wine merchant.
Prats' successor, Aymeric de Gironde, currently international commercial director of the wine branch of French insurance company AXA, will join Reybier at Cos d’Estournel in February. De Gironde has worked at Château Pichon Baron and Château Suduiraut in Bordeaux, and at estates in Portugal, Burgundy and Hungary. He’s also spent time at LVMH, so may be able to give Prats some tips on what to expect.
Prats will be leaving behind the estate’s shiny new winery, unveiled in 2008, which is considered to be one of the most technologically advanced in Bordeaux. It covers approximately 2,000 square meters and everything is gravity-fed, with no pumps necessary.
There are 72 stainless-steel vats, 12 of which hold 19 to 60 hectoliters with two floors in each, meaning 24 small vats. All the vats are conical and double-lined for better temperature control, and they don’t use interior heat coils.
During stalk removal, or de-stemming, grapes are frozen so their skins are not damaged and they don’t lose juice. For the "pumpless pumping over," the juice is released from the main vat into a smaller vat on wheels, which is sent to a glass elevator, taken up one floor, sent over to the original vat and poured back.
Other projects during Prats' tenure have included the start of a replanting program that will boost the size of the vineyard from 88 hectares to 91 hectares. Prats has also spent time improving and promoting the estate’s second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos, as well as adding an extra wine to the repertoire. This new wine, Goulée, “is for the younger generation that normally enjoys New World wine” but who would favor a new-style Bordeaux, Prats says. Retailing at about $30, it is a blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent merlot.
There have been claims that under Prats, Cos d’Estournel has become “Parkerized,” a reference to the influence of international wine critic Robert Parker. The château is producing a richer and riper style than in previous times, which suits Parker’s palate, and has been rewarded in the reviews.
“Yes, Prats has been a leader in Parkerization, but that’s not a bad thing,” said one Bordeaux merchant, who preferred not to be named. Another said the Parkerization issue was no longer relevant. “What matters with Cos now is the prices; they are too high.”
Other merchants agree. “[Cos] needs a bit of a shot in the arm to get it going again,” said Julian Chamberlen, sales director at merchants Goedhuis & Co, which has offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong. A merchant price of “well under 100 euros [$131]” for the 2012 vintage would help, he suggested.
French wine investment funds, though, don’t believe higher pricing is a problem. They say Cos is still a good buy for investors on the basis that super second growths are likely to narrow the yawning gap between them and the first growths with a rise in price.
Either way, as 2012 is Prats' last vintage, the likelihood is that both investors and drinkers will pile in to buy, even if it’s only on the basis of a good story.
Château Cos d'Estournel wine prices and available vintages on Wine-Searcher (worldwide prices, ex-tax per 750ml bottle):