Traveling to far-flung, vastly culturally different places is challenging on many levels and at times extremely exhausting. When one lives such an already overwhelmingly challenging life trying to survive, such as I’m sure many of you do, it may seem odd that someone like myself who feels overwhelmed ever week, or anyone else for that matter, would want to spend her small amount of vacation time visiting a place that offers so many obstacles – the best way I can explain it from my own experience is that this type of travel gives you a chance to tap into a purer form of yourself.
Louis Gaspard d’Estournel
Louis Gaspard d’Estournel is considered the founder of Cos d’Estournel – the ‘Super Second’ Left Bank Bordeaux wine in the most northern area of the Médoc, Saint-Estèphe, for the Grand Crus Classés wines. d’Estournel inherited the properties of Cos and Pomys in 1791 and even back then he was a believer in the terroir (sense of place) of the hill of Cos. And so that is how Cos d’Estournel started, and despite it being located in an area that had issues ripening tannins, it was placed quite high as a 2nd growth in the 1855 classification.
Travels to India
d’Estournel did not only sell his wines to British officers stationed in India starting in 1838 but he also built Cos d’Estournel to look like an Indian palace, made from French limestone, that has accents suggesting sacred pagodas throughout the property. As I walked around the estate, I felt that the surroundings evoked feelings of South Asia and East Africa (India and Zanzibar respectively) – several artifacts pointed towards many trips taken to exotic lands. This Cos d’Estournel estate showed the commitment, especially during those times, of a man who had more than just a business interest in the East but who was truly smitten and perhaps connected to places he visited.
My husband and I took our first trip to the other side of the world over 13 years ago. It was our honeymoon and we actually had two weeks off – that is a lot of time for Americans – and so we thought we would go to Thailand and Vietnam, never to have that chance again. It was a complicated journey that was tough on the body and mind, as well us getting ourselves into a few harrowing situations. But despite that, we found ourselves not wanting to go back home because we had found the home we were always missing. Of course, we came to our senses, realizing we could never figure out a way to make a living in either of those countries and took some small mementos back – like the carved piece of wood we bought in northern Thailand – to bring back those memories.
I have thought long and hard about the reasons behind us contemplating staying in South East Asia and walking away from everything to live in a place with an unforeseeable future. It is sort of like the path that the character Larry takes in the book The Razor’s Edge – a traumatized American WWI pilot who no longer feels at home in his old life. At one point in the book, Larry has a discussion about a trip he took to India that helped him to find where he belonged in the world. The discussion takes place between Larry and the author, W. Somerset Maugham, who places himself in the book as an observer. In the book, Maugham notes that this conversation can be skipped without losing the plot of the story yet he states that without this section he would not think the book would be worthwhile to write. I first read this book when I was a teenager, and several times in my early 20s, and that one section of Larry talking about his trip to India spoke to me. I never knew why until I was 31 years old in the middle of South East Asia.
I’m sure there were many Bordelais who did not appreciate the architectural style of Cos d’Estournel when it was first built, and even today, some traditional, old school Bordeaux drinkers refer to the property as being bizarre. Today the property has great appeal to a younger audience of Bordeaux drinkers who love the infusion of East and West – for me it is one of the most beautiful estates I have seen. While I walked around during my visit there, I could not help but think of the man himself, Louis Gaspard, and his own connection to the East. Did he always feel like an outsider and so that is why different cultures appealed to him? Did something happen in his life that changed him to seek out another land to connect to? Or did he end up traveling to distant lands out of a sense of adventure and realized that there was more to life than he could have ever dreamt?
For the main character of Larry in The Razor’s Edge, it was about him being forever changed by war; for myself, I was always an outsider trying to fit in and oddly I felt more comfortable in a land where I stuck out like a sore thumb. There is something wonderful about going somewhere so different that when you travel off the tourist’s path you are treated by people simply as a human being because it is difficult to have any assumptions when people are so far removed from each other. It is a much truer way of connecting, contrasting with the encounters we have with others in our own world where quick assumptions are made based on a few superficial facts. Traveling to cultures that are foreign to us in almost every way frees us to tap into a sense of self that goes beyond the expectations of the societies of our homeland.
Expressing the Terroir that was Always There
In many ways, that has been Cos d’Estournel’s journey as it has always been a great property and certainly one of the top in Saint-Estèphe, but it had always seemed different and placed in a box which has limited its potential by outside expectations and so no one ever thought of this property rivaling the great wines of Pauillac. But instead of trying to turn themselves into a great Pauillac wine like Lafite or Latour, Cos d’Estournel decided to go deep, not being afraid of its atypical or exotic nature – to go on the journey of discovering a whole new expression of excellence in Bordeaux.
The current owner, Michel Reybier, constructed a vat room that involves four vats encased in glass elevators, so no pumping is required, which creates finer tannins in the wines. Furthermore, Reybier and his team have isolated specific plots in their vineyards – 19 different soil types and varying microclimates – and not only can they gear their vineyard practices to these discoveries, but they choose which variety goes where depending on their analysis of that plot. Cos d’Estournel has been on an inner pilgrimage, peeling back the layers revealing that the property is more extraordinary than even its greatest fans could ever imagine and the outside world has been impressed – many Bordeaux wine experts placed Cos d’Estournel on the top of their lists for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages.
All those years ago, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel knew that there was something special about the Cos that seemed of another world, a world beyond Bordeaux, hence it is fitting to have it be such an exquisitely unique place; a place that reflected the dream of d’Estournel that finally makes wine that lives up to that once thought of impossible dream that was inspired by distant lands.
Tasting at Cos d’Estournel on March 26th, 2019
2018 was a vintage of extremes in Bordeaux and the quality is inconsistent, yet those properties that had luck on their side, as well as the desire and capacity to go the extra mile, produced excellent wines with beautiful texture and complex flavors.
-2018 Goulée by Cos d’Estournel: 73% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet France. This wine comes from their Goulée vineyard that is ideal for elegant Merlot. An expressive nose with notes of broken rock with hints of rose oil that had cinnamon spice throughout with blueberry pie that has tannins that caressed the palate with an energetic focus.
–2018 Pagodes de Cos: 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. A generous wine that had an open heart with delicious cassis flavors that was also deeply complex with fresh leather and an earthy charm that has an intriguing turmeric root note, finishing with a fine structure. Impressive second wine!
–2018 Cos d’Estournel: 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. A stunning sense of grace that left me completely enchanted with a satin texture, incredible linear energy and rich dark fruit flavors layered with cocoa nibs and traces of sandalwood incense smoke that transported me to another place. The finish was breathtaking in its persistence and pure finesse.
-2018 Pagodes de Cos Blanc: 93% Sauvignon Blanc and 7% Sémillon. Crisp acidity that gave a wonderful vitality with juicy nectarine flavors and hints of lime blossom and a hint of wet stones.
–2018 Cos d’Estournel Blanc: 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Sémillon. Honeysuckle with white flowers, chalky minerality and green mango notes made this wine regally exotic with an enticing textural component that at once gave it weight and structure that had an impeccably purity of fruit on the finish. The whites of Cos d’Estournel are extremely impressive although I had never thought of giving them much attention until this tasting.
2014 vintage was not a super star like the 2016s as it was lighter, but 2014 was certainly more concentrated than 2013 or 2007. Basically it made fresh, classic wines but some areas and estates did better than others with round tannins and a fair amount of concentration. The top estates of Saint-Estèphe did quite well in the 2014 vintage and so it makes sense why Cos d’Estournel proudly tasted us on the red lineup of this vintage.
-2014 Goulée by Cos d’Estournel: 78% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Cabernet Franc. This had a gamy, savory quality that I liked that was perfectly balanced by blackberry liqueur and had firm tannins that played off of the lush fruit.
–2014 Pagodes de Cos: 43% Merlot, 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. More forest floor notes on this wine with a gravelly character with a laser focus that gave it lift and fresh black fruit showed on the sustained finish.
–2014 Cos d’Estournel: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. I loved the smoldering incense character I got with this Cos d’Estournel, with a nose of dried flowers, fresh herbs and wild truffles that had tannins that felt like silky ribbons across the body.
-2005 & 2003 Cos d’Estournel-
2005 was known as a perfect vintage where everything happened in the ideal way in the vineyards and it was also the vintage that created a whole new standard in Bordeaux. 2003 was one of the hottest in recent history where some elderly people actually died in France from the heat-waves; many of the wines ended up becoming too desiccated for classic drinkers, although a few, such as Cos d’Estournel, were able to make elegant wines with freshness.
–2005 Cos d’Estournel: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. This bottle was a lot more open than when I had the 2005 last in January of 2016. Incense and clove notes were still dominating the nose with extra layers of cigar box and stony rocks that still had plenty of that blackcurrant jam on the palate. I still feel it is far from its peak and will only get better with more time.
-2003 Cos d’Estournel: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet. This 2003 shocked me back when I had it last in the beginning of 2016 and it shocks me still today as it is fresh and vital, unlike so many other Bordeaux wines that are dead and dried-out. This is a beautiful wine to drink now as it had sweet spice, round pretty fruit and it was seductive with its plush body yet that sandalwood note was still there with bright acidity and elegance.
-2017 Cos d’Estournel-
2017 is one of those vintages that is difficult to summarize because it is all over the place. For many wines, the quality is a couple notches below the across-the-boards stellar 2016s, but there are standouts, especially in Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. I tasted over 150 wines at the Panorama Primeurs (tasting the wines one year after En Primeur) at Millésima on the same day of my visit to Cos d’Estournel. It was a fun vintage to taste because there was so much variety and there were some shining stars that unexpectedly thrilled me. I will be posting my 2017 notes soon.
–2017 Cos d’Estournel: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. This 2017 was just as extraordinary as their 2016 but stylistically different. Instead of prancing and giving everything at once like the 2016, it was deeper and mysterious as it was always evolving in one’s head with, yes, that incense and spicy note but it had multifaceted flavors of an array of black fruit while being laced with intense minerality. And despite the tannin quality being an issue for some in 2017, the texture on this Cos was fine and outstanding and it made this wine desirable while still being deeply moving in its complexity that seems never-ending.