“Is the wine as good as the architecture?” asked my professor-of-architecture friend when I sent him a photo of Bordeaux’s Château Cos d’Estournel. “And then some!” I say, as I attempt to absorb a lecture on “Saracenic style” – a mix of Indian, Islamic and classical architecture, a result of the British colonization of the east.
#Exotic, #regal, #lush, #imposing…. Curiously, it would appear descriptors of the Cos d’Estournel property work equally well to describe the wine – a rare gift in the world of marketing. Cos d’Estournel is truly a brand for the times, and in social-media-shy Bordeaux, platforms like Instagram and Vivino are helping share and amplify the Cos message.
“We have this incredible advantage with our property and the heritage of the estate,” says Géraldine Giroux, Director of Communications for the château. “We’ve learned a lot along the way since we launched Instagram, which is now our main communication channel. We published our first video in January and we’ll be publishing our first Instagram ‘story’ at harvest in a few weeks. It helps to have this sensational property and exotic architecture to introduce the wine.”
Hill of Stones
The word and village name ‘Cos’ translates to ‘hill of stones’, and it’s on this higher ground in the St.-Estèphe appellation of the famous Médoc ‘Left Bank’ where you’ll find this inspiring château and legendary wine.
I had the pleasure of visiting the St.-Estèphe Second Growth (Deuxièmes Cru) estate this summer, and while “rocks” may overstate the geology (think: gravel), it very definitely describes the experience.
Cos d’Estournel is not typical Bordeaux-Château. This is a wine that oozes personality, with a whimsical and rich heritage that’s woven throughout the brand experience. From the charming, eccentric pioneer of the estate – Mr. d’Estournel and his dramatic Indo inspired château, to the exceptionally inky, structured wines and exacting – some might say painstaking – winemaking process, Cos d’Estournel offers consumers a true #winelovers experience. Of course in the 1830’s, the residents around the commune of Cos didn’t think owner Louis-Joseph Gaspard d’Estournel’s eccentricities were particularly charming nor did they view the château’s Indian inspired pagodas, artefacts and spiritual embellishments as “normal”.
Add to that Mr. d’Estournel’s rogue wine distribution practices, and it’s clear he was the wine industry’s bad boy du jour.
Fast-forward 188 years and the picture is quite different. Today, Cos d’Estournel is considered one of the most prestigious wine estates in the world, that rebellious streak earning the château a rarefied position as one of fifteen Deuxièmes Crus in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855.
The estate has changed hands many times over, but today’s owner and manager – luxury hospitality, spa czar, and industrialist Michel Reybier – understands the importance of keeping everything associated with Cos d’Estournel’s grand vin, and grand estate, on a grand scale. That means investing in a talented workforce, adding only state-of-the-art winemaking technology and building on the rich and unique brand story created by Louis Gaspard d’Estournel….the gift that keeps on giving!
“Social Media is crucial for our customers and for our sales force – especially in our largest markets,” says Giroux. “The MyBalthazar research has a lot of Bordeaux properties asking questions about the importance of digital and social media and these are crucial questions right now for all of us in this region. Unfortunately, there is still an incredible gap between some properties and some owners in understanding how they need to be using these tools now.”
In addition to investing in social media and building the Cos communications team, Reybier has also invested – extensively – in château upgrades. He and his management team have re-envisioned the technical design of a cellar and barrel room with “gentle” as the modus operandi for all stages of the winemaking process. The gravity flow wine-making facilities at Cos are unique to the region; few château have invested to raise the quality bar so high.
“They are one of the very few châteaux to have a digital specialist on their team which explains why they place so high in the rankings,” says Benjamin Sonet, CEO of MyBalthazar who conducted the recently released social media study on Bordeaux Chateaux (read all about it here).
Château Cos d’Estournel is the fourth most visible wine estate in Bordeaux, according to the MyBalthazar’s 2018 research. It trails only Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Chateau Margaux and Chateau D’ Yquem. “Right now we are trying to follow the strategy we implemented and our focus is on Instagram, Facebook and WeChat,” say Giroux. “We launched WeChat in the Chinese market in March. It’s an incredible tool and it’s deeply integrated into the lives of Chinese consumers. Right now our account is not open. We use it as a tool for our customers and our guests.”
Giroux says they’re not interested in buying sponsored posts or using paid influencers. “Our Cos community and fans are growing organically, and we prefer that strategy,” she says. But the content and conversation her digital team is having with their customers in China is different from the conversation and content in the U.S. “The American market is a traditional market for Bordeaux wine,” says Giroux. “They’re already connoisseurs and know more about the technical aspects of wine and the wine-making process. There is still a lot of wine discovery happening in China and the tourism aspect, the care we take in hosting our guests at dinners and the hospitality at our Cos property, that is a big part of the message.”
I used the MyBalthazar research as my personal ‘trip advisor’ when planning my trip to Bordeaux and was further swayed by the Instagram and Facebook images of the glorious Cos d’Estournel estate. As important, the gravel, clay and iron pan terroir of St.-Estèphe is reputed to produce some of the finest Bordeaux wine in the region. With its firm, concentrated, incense-like reds – tastings zealously reported on the Vivino social media network – this was a wine I was determined to try. Does social media work?
Direct to Consumer (DTC) Pioneer – Louis Gaspard d’Estournel
Born in 1762, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel was a marquis and started producing wine in 1791 when his father handed him a parcel of land in the Medoc’s northern commune of St.-Estèphe. He quickly recognized that the land he had inherited produced high-quality grapes and over a 40-year period, bought all of the land and vineyards around the village of Cos, including the Cru Bourgeois property, Château Pomys. As a vigneron, Mr d’Estournel was ahead of his time, isolating the grape varietals and plots in the vineyard and vinifying them separately.
In the early years, his wines were distributed through the local négociants who were responsible for bottling, labeling and selling the local wines. At that time in history, the château would make the wine and put it in barrel, and the négociants would put their name on the bottles. In many cases, the name of the Château or producer wouldn’t be featured on the bottle!! According to our fabulous host at Cos d’Estournel, Anais Grespo, it wasn’t until the 1940s that producers were allowed to put their name on the label.
Not one to fall in line, Mr. d’Estournel decided to make, bottle and label his own wine. He wasn’t a fan of the négociant system; if he was doing the work he wanted the credit. A wonderful relic of his time is a label from the 1830’s that says Château Cos …. d’Estournel: expédié par moi or, shipped by me. The largest markets in the 1830’s included Germany, England and the other British colonies. India, in particular, fascinated Mr. d’Estournel and pioneer that he was, he decided to ship and sell his own wine in the exotic colony.
His unsold wine was hauled back by steam-ship to St-Estèphe. Interestingly, he found the heat on the long voyage back, further aged the wine, which added a flavour and richness that he – and many others – quite liked (malolactic fermentation). That riper style of wine contributed to the already heady reputation of the château and Mr. d’Estournel counted Queen Victoria, Emperor Napoleon III of France, Tsar Nicolas I of Russia and the banking dynasty Rothschilds as his greatest supporters. The bump in sales, allowed Mr. d’Estournel to augment his château and build his grand shrine to India, including adding three pagoda towers, intricately carved stone archways and the Taj Mahal garden. Other features that had the neighbours scratching their heads: the magnificent 17th century door from Zanzibar, the lion and unicorn coat of arms and the stone plaza with limestone imported from Rajasthan.
Louis d’Estournel, died in 1853 at 91 years of age with no children, no wife, and seriously indebted to the banks. He was forced sell his château and vineyards to bankers and spent his last years at his Pomys estate. The next château owners used the négociant system to sell Cos d’Estournel wines, which many say, allowed the wines to be included in the famous 1855 Medoc Classification.
Cos d’Estournel is 25 metres above sea level and sits between the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. The wind dries the vines and the location is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. There is no frost typically in the shoulder seasons because of the prevailing winds. The St-Estèphe terroir is a mix of gravel, clay, sand and limestone soil and Cos d’Estournel vineyards are largely composed of well-draining gravel.
The estate produces 450,000 bottles annually from 100 hectares of vineyards (247 acres). Blending for the Cos d’Estournel ‘grand vin’ (great wine) can be different based on vintage conditions but generally, the grand vin is 70 – 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and the balance is Merlot. Merlot grows on the slopes and at the bottom of the hill where there is more clay and humidity. The balance of vines in the vineyard are Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. The vineyards are planted at 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare, and average 35 years. Only vines that are more than 20 years are used as grand vin fruit.
The second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos averages 60 – 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and fruit comes from younger vines and a second vineyard in St-Estèphe called Marbuzet.
The extraordinary thing about Cos d’Estournel is their all-or-nothing approach to winemaking. They’ve adopted 100% gravity flow and re-tooled all production mechanics in their new cellar, a process started in 2008. The estate has banished pumps, adopting a minimalist-intervention, hands-off approach to vinification. According to the winemaking team, traditional pump-overs (to extract colour and tannin) and racking and returning (siphoning the wine off the sediment or yeast cells) force the movement of wine and are too harsh, destabilizing the wine and adding too much air to the must.
In lieu of pump-overs, and to facilitate the gravity-flow process, Cos d’Estournel has built two large glass wine elevators on either side of the facility to move the wine from the lower floor to the footbridges above, essentially mimicking the pump-over process. The main floor features 72 ‘old world style’ cone-shaped isothermal tanks (with capacity ranging from 18 – 115 hectolitres), all in shiny new, stainless steel. Four extra tanks facilitate this elevator-enabled pump-over process and move the wine back-and-forth. Fermented wine is moved to the barrel room below, using gravity. It’s a remarkable, labour-intensive process and nothing, we are reminded, is as gentle as gravity.
At Cos d’Estournel, grapes are hand-picked, hand sorted and vinified by plot – hence the 72 tank allotment. No one at Cos wants to abandon the varietal and plot vinification tradition generated by the big guy.
On the distribution side, a négociant team of 40 sales people support Cos d’Estournel’s sales efforts with 40% of wine sold in Europe, 30% in North America and 30% in Asia.
It’s fair to say I was looking forward to this part of the tour!
We tasted two wines: a 2008 Cos d’Estournel grand vin and a 2011 second wine, Les Pagodes de Cos.
Château Cos d’Estournel – Les Pagodes de Cos – 2011 – Second wine
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot
St. Estephe had a particularly warm summer and then in early September hail damaged a significant amount of the fruit. The Cos team had to pick early – Sept 4 – requiring a lot of sorting. This was a tough year where the cellar-master earned his keep and more Pagodes made it into the Grand Vin vintage as a result.
The wine offers a sensory bouquet of cedar, allspice, ripe black plum and blackberry fruit. It’s medium bodied with fresh earth, a hint of saddle, with lots of ripe plum and blackberry fruit. It offers a silky smooth mouth-feel and firm tannins. Lovely to drink now and it will only get better with time.
Château Cos d’Estournel – 2008
2008 was a mixed vintage in St. Estephe and Bordeaux. June was slow to warm up, July was hot and August, a mix of conditions. Indian summer provided two beautiful months of ripening in September and October, concentrating flavours and making harvest – I’m told – a true pleasure.
This is a beautiful wine… to see and to drink. It’s dark ruby – almost black. On the nose, aromas of rich cassis fruit, sweet cedar, smoke, leather and chocolate. It drinks beautifully – silky tannins, black current, vanilla, spice blended to deliver a complex, full-bodied wine with perfect structure and an elegant, long finish.
Welcome to Bordeaux.