Well, I’m busting out with Bordeaux excitement all over the place! First, I visited Bordeaux for the first time in December, and then in late January, I tasted hundreds of 2016 Bordeaux wines at the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux event in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. So I have lots of Bordeaux brilliance to share with you!
Let’s start at the beginning. Not all that long ago (let’s say, less than 10 years ago) I knew nothing about Bordeaux – rien! And then I learned one giant, magical thing. Ready? Bordeaux, reds are either Cabernet Sauvignon- or Merlot-based wines and whites are either Sauvignon Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Buh bam! Lightbulb moment! Just that one piece of knowledge opened my eyes, and all of a sudden I was able to see Bordeaux more clearly. How many times had I stared blankly at a restaurant wine list, gotten to the Bordeaux section and not had a single, freaking clue about what was what? No more!
The second thing I learned was the five classic red Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. You will almost never find a red wine in Bordeaux that is not a blend of at least two of these grapes. And you will almost never find a wine that has any other grapes than these five. Cool, right?
I’m going to break up my Bordeaux excitement into multiple articles because you know … there’s a lot!
A Few Basics: When I planned this trip, I kind of neglected to realize the geography of France, so I started in Reims, for Champagne, and then we took a train to Paris (to Gare L’Est) and then we jumped into a taxi to travel clear across Paris, to get to Gare Montparnasse to get the train to Bordeaux. Holy fuck, this was a crazy day! So the four-hour train trip from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to Bordeaux (which just opened in 2017) was about $50 U.S. one-way. Bordeaux, a city of about 250,000 people, is on the Gironde River, and has been a major port for centuries. It’s home to one of the largest wine trade fairs in the world, VinExpo, as well as the University of Bordeaux, which has a renowned oenology school, and the Cité du Vin, the most amazing, mind-blowing wine museum in the world (more on that to come.)
I am lucky enough to have great relationships with a number of people in the wine industry who graciously helped me book visits to four Chateaux on the left and right banks. We rented a car in Bordeaux at the train station and headed to the right bank for an easy day-trip and were back in Bordeaux by 5:30, just in time to crack open a bottle for a proper glass, before meeting friends for dinner!
Cos d’Estournel was our first stop, where we were greeted by the delightful and friendly Vanessa Renouil-Cahier. Cos d’Estournel is the southernmost chateau in Saint-Estèphe, with Pauillac immediately to the south. The winery was founded by Louis Gaspard d’Estournel in the early 1800s, and subsequently changed hands four or five times over the centuries, until it was purchased in 2000 by Michel Reybier, a renowned French hotelier. Monsieur Reybier not only has a strong passion for Bordeaux, but also for preserving the amazing history of Cos d’Estournel and innovating to make the wines even better. Sidenote: the winery is pronounced “coz des-tour-nel,” because in the southern part of France, they pronounce all the letters (so it is not pronounced, “co day-tournel,” as an American French-speaker might think!)
Cos ‘d’Estournel makes three collections of wines: 1) the much-revered Cos d’Estournel (roughly $150-$175 per bottle) Pagodes de Cos, a similarly respected line at a slightly more affordable price point (roughly $50-$65) and 3) La Goulee, a red wine and a white wine that are both produced about 30 miles away from the property, on the coast, and which I’ve hasted before and are delicious, and priced at roughly $30 each.
My first question of Vanessa was “what is a ‘cos’?” And the answer was another Bordeaux brain-blaster: a cos is simply a small hill. And you know what other old French words meant “small hill” back in the day? Mouton. La fitte. Oui! all these years, I thought those were family names, but Vanessa explained that most chateaux are named after a geographic aspect – like a small hill — and a family name. So Monsieur d’Estournel named his winery after himself and the small hill upon which he built the cellar. Just as Monsieur Rothschild named his after himself and the mouton upon which he built his cellar! Fascinating!
Okay, onward! The entire property at Cos, as we’ll call it, is remarkable. Monsieur Reybier has sunk big bucks into the place, renovating the winery so that it now uses gravity to make the wines (which treats the grapes like royalty – no forcing the grapes or the delicate juice against their will!) And grapes from each of the chateaus’ 84 vineyard blocks are vinified in exactly 84 tanks, before being blended. There are all sorts of super-smart, thoughtful innovations throughout with the aim of treating the grapes with the best possible care to result in the best possible wines.
But maybe the coolest thing was learning about Monsieur Louis Gaspard d’Estournel. Turns out he was quite the visionary! He traveled widely, and as a result, he basically invented the practice of exporting of wine, bypassing the traditional French negociants (who serve as brokers for almost all Bordeaux wines) and sending his wines overseas himself, signing each bottle. People thought he was crazy, but his wines proved popular and he was the envy of many for his innovative thinking. His wines started fetching higher and higher prices, and after a few unsold bottles came back on a return ship, he noticed that the sea voyage had actually improved the quality of the wine!
But wait, there’s another cool story! In 1915, the Parcelle de Femmes vineyard was planted, named in honor of the women who kept the winemaking going during World War I. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this legendary vineyard plot in 2015, Cos invited all the women who work at the winery to create an exclusive cuvée (100 percent Merlot). They produced 100 double magnums (also known as a jeroboam) holding 300 liters of wine and 10 Balthazars (12 liters, or 16 bottles of wine). You can order them if you like, from the Chateau: the double-magnum is €23,000 and the Balthazar is €105,000. 🙂
There are endless interesting stories about Cos, but the proof is in the wines – which have always been prized, and perhaps never more so than today, with the care that is going into the grape-growing and winemaking. Vanessa poured two wines for us: Les Pagodes de Cos 2011 and Cos d’Estournel 2008.
Both wines were absolutely beautiful. The 2008 Cos d’Estournel — 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc — was like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The wine drew me in with deep mocha, black spices, tobacco and dried herbs and some powerful yet smooth tannins. It had a silky mouthfeel and I could only imagine how gorgeous it would be with a confit duck leg or a steak frites!
The 2011 Pagodes de Cos was a little sassier – younger, a little more austere and fresher – but it’s still “a baby,” with only seven years on it! We purchased two bottles to enjoy at our hotel (the Grand Barrail in St. Emilion). The Pagodes de Cos 2017 can be ordered (three-bottle minimum) on wine.com for $45 – which seems like a crazy good bargain to me. You could drink it now, but I’d lay it down for a few years. If you can find 2015 or 2016 vintages, grab them – they are both exceptional.
Thank you, Vanessa and Cos d’Estournel, for the amazing experience! I can’t wait to taste these beautiful wines again!
Next stop: Pontet Canet! Coming soon!