Along with my colleague Thomas Matthews, I have been in Bordeaux this month. To evaluate the 2008 vintage in bottle, we've blind tasted nearly 450 reds, dry whites and Sauternes. You can read the first batch of reviews in the Dec. 15 edition of our weekly Insider newsletter, available only to WineSpectator.com subscribers. Now I am visiting different châteaus to check out the evolution of the 2009 wines. Read about my first stops with Jean-Philippe Delmas at Château Haut-Brion, Christian Moueix at Château Pétrus and Thomas Duroux at Château Palmer.
Jean-Guillaume Prats is just 41, but has already managed a fair share of vintages, as he assumed control of Château Cos-d'Estournel in the 1999 vintage. Along with Jean-Philippe Delmas, Jean-Charles Cazes, Frédéric Engerer, Thomas Duroux, Edouard Moueix and others, Prats is among the generation of Bordelais who will help shape the region in the years to come.
At Cos-d'Estournel, Prats has overseen a major renovation of the cellars, which began after the 2005 vintage was vinified. From there, the ’06 and ’07 vintages were done in a temporary facility while Prats not only updated the cellars, but redesigned much of the internal workings at Cos so that everything from grape reception to bottling could be handled more efficiently.
Today, a tour at Cos-d'Estournel includes a walk amidst the gleaming rows of conical stainless-steel vats that fill up the vinification cellar, 75 in total, ranging from 25 to 115 hectoliters. Want bells and whistles? Entire vats are lifted by elevator so the juice can be moved by gravity rather than by pump (a full tank can weigh up to 80 tons).
In addition, the tanks are equipped with fans underneath, which help to break up the cap from below.
“It’s an internal pigéage,” said Prats. “So there is not oxidation."
The vats themselves are double-walled in order to provide better thermal inertia, mimicking the cement tanks that are the preferred fermentation vat of the old school. Prats said he wants to control as much of the winemaking process as possible—malolactic is pushed through in tank before moving the wine to barrel, so the young 2010 red here is one of the few in the region to have finished.
But while Prats is clearly a modernist, he is also wise enough to know that he doesn’t know everything.
“When it comes to winemaking, everyone is right, and wrong,” he said with a smile.
Cos-d'Estournel counts 90 hectares of contiguous vines, laid out around the château, which sits astride the main road that knifes through the St.-Estèphe appellation. And it’s in the vineyards where Prats' penchant for detail shows. Looking out from the château, you wouldn’t know all that you see is owned by Cos, as differing methods of viticulture can easily be seen.
For example, the clay soils (which comprise about 35 hectares of Cos’ vineyard base) with eastern exposure are used for Merlot, with grass allowed to grow between the vines to help reduce vigor. The 40 hectares of gravel slopes though, which point southwest facing Château Lafite Rothschild across the way, look bare and rocky—Cabernet on these soils doesn’t need a cover crop to adequately struggle. A third section of the vineyards (15 hectares) features a mix of clay and gravel soils, ideal for Cabernet Franc.
Driving through the vineyard, Prats talked about how he selects the second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos.
The tower at Cos-d'Estournel is just part of the château's famed Indian and Asian-inspired architecture.
“Seventy-five percent of Pagodes is already decided in the vineyard,” said Prats. “The rest is a blending decision based on the context of the soil and the vintage.”
When we come to a stretch of vines being pruned, a bold orange swipe of paint covered some vine trunks and heads off at an awkward angle through the parcel.
“No, we’re not big fans of the Dutch football team,” said Prats.
Instead, it’s a marker line in a parcel, denoting a smaller subsection that ripen differently and thus need to be harvested at different times. These smaller sub-parcels are the main reason there are so many different-sized tanks back at the winery—individual parcels are fermented separately. It’s part of the search for precision that Prats, like so many others in Bordeaux, is engaged in.
Yet for all the modern trappings inside, Prats still knows that Cos-d'Estournel exists outside, in the vineyard. And while he wants to control as much as possible in the winemaking process, he is also aware he can’t control everything. While Cos-d'Estournel might seem like a château that would’ve brought in an optical sorter, Prats shook his head instead.
“I don’t mind a little bit of stem here or there,” he said. “Looking for too perfect a grape can lead to a loss of complexity. You want to eliminate the extremes, without cutting the middle down too severely.”
No, Christo was not here. The orange markings allow pickers to easily identify subparcels within the vineyards to be harvested at different times.
Back at the winery, Prats then poured a tasting of the first three vintages made in the redone cellar, starting with the Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe 2008. The 2008 (reviewed in the Dec. 15 edition of the Wine Spectator Insider) is one of the top bottlings of this inconsistent vintage, a sleek, pure beam of tangy Damson plum and cherry fruit with a flashy iron hint on the finish. The Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe 2009 is a huge step up though, commensurate with the vintage as a whole. It’s several shades denser than the ’08, with more anise, blackberry and currant fruit that’s super exuberant, pure and, yes, precise. It’s a clear classic in the making. And it seems as if Prats has taken full advantage of the back-to-back stellar vintages Bordeaux was blessed with, as the Château Cos-d'Estournel St.-Estèphe 2010 shows intense, sappy cassis fruit, a strong graphite spine and superb drive. It seems to have a touch more vivacity than the ’09 even, though there is a long way to go.
Though the quality jump from the ’08 to the ’09/’10 duo is considerable, it’s an impressive run of vintages nonetheless. With a spanking new cellar helping to amplify the attention being paid in the vineyards, Prats has Cos-d'Estournel in top form.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
Jeremiah Morehouse — Sacramento CA — December 29, 2010 7:54am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 29, 2010 9:40am ET
Jeremiah Morehouse — Sacramento CA — December 29, 2010 4:41pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 29, 2010 6:13pm ET
Jeremiah Morehouse — Sacramento CA — December 30, 2010 3:22pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 30, 2010 6:38pm ET
James Peterson — San Antonio, Texas — December 31, 2010 10:21am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 31, 2010 10:27am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions