On Cos d'Estournel & Tasting 9 Vintages

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Cos d’Estournel is one of the highly respected “super-seconds” of Bordeaux. The famous 1855 Classification, which ranked Bordeaux producers as first- through fifth-growths, placed the estate in the second tier. However, its vineyard is in a very fine location, southern St. Estephe, just across a small strip of wetlands from 1st-growthChateau Lafite-Rothschild of Pauillac. And Cos d’Estournel elevated its game suddenly and dramatically beginning with 2000, the same year Michel Reybier took ownership.

Cos d’Estournel only managed 90+ points from Robert Parker three times in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. From 2000, however, it has never failed to reach that mark. Cos d’Estournel has actually averaged 95 points over that time. In this respect, it is now in the same echelon as Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Margaux.

Cos d'Estournel

Cos d'Estournel Technical Director Dominique Arangoits

During the first week of May, I tasted through nine wines with Dominique Arangoits, the technical director and head of winemaking at Cos d’Estournel. My personal notes and ratings on the wines, including five vintages of the grand vin, are below. But first, let’s take a closer look at the estate.

The Vineyard of Cos d'Estournel

“Cos” means “hill of pebbles” in Gascon French. And the estate does command one of the region’s rare hills, rising from 16 feet up to about 80. Though a minimal elevation, it make a difference in several respects.

The altitude, along with the wetlands below, helps to minimize frost risk. The vines haven’t suffered frost damage since 1991. This is despite the fact that global warming over the past 20 years has actually increased frost risk in the area by causing earlier bud break and flowering.

The slope also results in a diversity of soil types. The top of the hill is warm, well-drained gravel and stone, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. As the land begins to slope downward, the soils generally shift to a mixture of gravel and clay. The lower slope is predominantly clay in which Merlot thrives. The bottom land is limestone.

Some of the vineyard blocks have up to three distinct soils. Their fruit is separated at harvest and then fermented in different lots, to maximize flexibility for blending. The four varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, plus one block each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot—tend to be picked at different times and are also fermented separately.

The slopes also create two different facings, encouraging further complexity. On one side of the hill, the vineyard drops toward the south, maximizing sun exposure. The other vineyard slope falls to the east, providing good sun, especially in the first half of the day, and shelter from weather coming off the ocean to the west.

There have been changes in the vineyard in recent years, due to both global warming and the chateau’s desire to move toward more environmental growing. For example, they completely stopped using herbicides four years ago.

With respect to the warming, Arangoits tells me, “the challenge used to be getting Cabernet Sauvignon ripe. Today, the challenge is balance.” To that end, the percentage of Merlot used in the grand vin, which has always been relatively high compared to other top Left Bank producers, has gone down in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon. Harvest for Cabernet Sauvignon is earlier now too, mid-September rather than late.

Part of the improvement and greater consistency in the wines from 2000 may be that vines are now in their prime of life. Today, the average age of the vines in the grand vin is 40 years. For Les Pagodes de Cos it’s 30 years.

Winemaking at Cos d'Estournel

In 2008, Cos d’Estournel completed construction of a new winery. There, everything is done gently. All movement of grapes and juice is either by conveyor belt or gravity, no pumps.

The fruit arrives, is sorted, de-stemmed and crushed, then moved to the second floor on a conveyor belt. The various lots of fruit fall from the belt into small, wheeled bins. Those are rolled to fermentation tanks and the fruit is tipped in.

During fermentation, the juice is moved to the top of the cap twice daily, but there is no pump-over or punch-down. It’s done by draining juice through a short pipe from the stainless fermenters into small stainless tubs. That tubs are then mechanically lifted above the   fermenter and drain by gravity through a hose back onto the cap.

After a post-fermentation maceration of two-to-three weeks, the free run juice is moved off the pomace into fresh stainless tanks. Then the solids are gently squeezed in a basket press. The press juice goes into barrels for about a month.

Blending is done during December of the vintage year, to give the component wines a long time to marry. Once blended, the wines age in oak barriques. The grand vin gets 60% new French oak. Pagodes de Cos 30%. During the aging phase, the wine is racked occasionally, but gently and with minimal oxygen exposure.

Cos d’Estournel also stopped fining wines three years ago, having determined that it’s not necessary. The wine is gently filtered at bottling. But that and bottling are also carried out using gravity and no pumps.

Tasting the Wines of Cos d’Estournel

2012 Medoc de Cos

This wine comes from a small vineyard in the northern Medoc, which the Cos d’Estournel purchased in 2003. The wine is made in a separate facility. As there’s more clay in this part of the Medoc, the blend is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wine is medium-bodied with deep ruby-purple color and notable acidity. Aromas and flavors include ripe plum, dark berries, spice, and oak. The fruit is tangy on the palate and there’s some drying herb as well. The tannins of softish, fine- and very-fine grain are structural, but don’t demand cellaring. It’s a good, mid-week dinner wine to enjoy over the next four years.

JJ Buckley has the 2011 vintage of this wine in stock.

2009 Pagodes de Cos

Pagodes de Cos is not a second wine per se, in that it’s not made from declassified fruit. It’s a very different blend from the grand vin—more Merlot—and the Cabernet Sauvignon largely comes from different vineyard blocks.

The 2009 blend is 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot. The color is opaque ruby-purple and the flavors driven by ripe black currant and spice. Body is medium-plus with plenty of fine-grained, grippy tannins and a good measure of refreshing acidity. A very good wine now, but it will develop nicely in the cellar for another decade. 

2012 Pagodes de Cos

From a less ripe vintage than 2009, this wine is brighter and a little more savory. Look for violets, blackberry, blueberry, with accents of drying herbs and leaves. Medium-plus body, acidity and tannins, the latter fine-grained.

2014 Pagodes de Cos

A dry, warm, and windy September made the vintage in 2014 and this wine is pleasantly ripe as a result. Aromas and flavors are led by medium-dark chocolate, ripe but tangy black currant, and dry earth. The nose emphasizes chocolate, the intense palate favors fruit. Good balance between acidity and tannins makes the wine nimble in the mouth and extends the finish.

2004 Cos d’Estournel

15 years in, this wine is still opaque purplish-ruby in the glass with a ton of very fine, luxuriously soft, powdery texture. The nose is reticent, but shows slightly raisined black currant and spice. Those flavors are bolder on the nearly full-bodied palate and there’s a dollop of dark chocolate too. This is a powerful wine with 15 years ahead of it. That said, it would be great tomorrow night with braised short ribs. 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc. 

2005 Cos d’Estournel

One of the best vintages of the 21st century made for a stellar grand vin. Beautifully balanced with medium-plus body and acidity that tangos with softly toothsome tannins. Both nose and palate are complex, in part due to a double dose of Cabernet Franc. The fabulously intense flavors go on and on. Enjoy dried black currant, coffee, ferrous earth, sweet and medicinal herb, and dry leaves. 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc. 

2006 Cos d’Estournel

2005 was a tough act to follow in Bordeaux, but the 2006 vintage shouldn’t be overlooked. This particular effort is a very attractive wine, still in the early stages of development and leaning more toward fruity than savory. It has medium-plus body and a matching level of tannins. They begin very fine and soft in the mouth, then gradually become chewier. Intensity and length are admirable. Drink now through 2030. 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 2% Petite Verdot. 

2008 Cos d’Estournel

This is a very sophisticated vintage of the grand vin. It’s nearly full-bodied, but carries itself lightly relative to 2004 and 2005. The lovely and extremely long flavors include drying black currant, poached black cherry, drying leaves, coffee, mint, tobacco, and spice. The texture is very soft, chalky and fine. It’s well-matched by mouthwatering acidity. Drink now - 2035. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc. 

2016 Cos d’Estournel

This is the only vintage among these wines grown without herbicides, made in the new winery and released without fining. It’s impossible to gauge the impact of those elements, but this is a superb wine. It’s lithe on the palate and immediately drinkable, but has plenty of intensity and staying power too. The aromas and flavors are still in their infancy, but show fresh blackberries, coffee, and a chiffonade of sweet herb. Body is medium-plus with a wealth of creamy tannins that get gripper from mid-palate on. It’s sneaky good and glasses will empty as if by magic. I wish I’d had more time with this one to see how it evolved in the glass. 

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.