On the left bank of the Gironde estuary in the French wine-growing region of Bordeaux lies the commune of Saint-Estèphe. It’s here that Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel envisioned a domaine that would bear exceptional grapes and thus create extraordinary wine. Now, more than two centuries later, the estate that he founded – Cos d’Estournel – continues to find new ways of unearthing the best from its terroir.
The driving force of its current life cycle is owner and entrepreneur Michel Reybier, a discreet gentleman who sees his role at Cos as that of a steward, charting a course for the estate’s success in years to come. A special auction earlier this year – in line with the much-anticipated release of a limited-edition single-varietal vintage named COS100 – supported Indian elephant conservation efforts, showcasing the estate’s commitment to a part of the world with which it has long had an affinity, while innovations in cellaring over the past decade provide ample proof of its unabated devotion to excellence.
Reybier is writing a new chapter for Cos d’Estournel, one that celebrates a fascinating history rich with risk and success, and looks towards a future where luxury is defined by experience rather than by price tag.
COS100 is a very important project for Cos d’Estournel. Tell us why now is the right time for the release.
The COS100 is a unique wine in that it will only be produced once. During the First World War, the women of Cos planted a hectare with Merlot vines to ensure the survival of Cos while their men were at the front. Called the Parcelle des Femmes, this plot was harvested in 2015. Our first objective was to celebrate these women on the 100th anniversary of their planting and, secondly, we decided to harvest this hectare of vines just once to make an original wine with a single Merlot grape – unlike any other produced on the estate – and of which only two barrels have been made. This will yield just 10 Balthazar bottles (12 litres) and 100 Double Magnums (3 litres), all bottled by hand.
Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel had a very specific vision for the estate. How have you maintained this heritage over the years?
He built the estate by buying the best plots in Saint-Estèphe, based on the belief that this was key to making exceptional wine. He was one of the rare winemakers to build his chateau in honour of his wine; it is, and always has been, the wine that inhabits the chateau rather than the other way around. This is a very important element at Cos and in all the renovations I’ve done, I’ve continued to ensure that it’s the wine that remains the “owner” and “inhabitant” of the chateau. Also, the architecture of this chateau is completely atypical because – with its Asian/Indian style – it was built in honour of the countries to which Louis-Gaspard sold his wine at the time – namely India – two centuries ago.
While heritage is important, innovation is essential. Why did you make the move to gravity-based cellars?
When we renovated the cellar a decade ago, we were obsessed with what is good for wine and what could improve the quality thereof – even before we considered the architectural side of things. Because of this, we implemented the use of “true” gravity, rather than pumps, throughout the process. This brings enormous quality to the wine, along with a certain precision, and a certain clarity, because the grapes are never shaken up by any kind of pump.
It’s often said that Cos d’Estournel vintages benefit from extended time in the bottle. Did you decide to make wine with this as a goal, or is it simply a consequence of the terroir and grapes?
The terroir is, of course, essential to the quality of the wine. However, it’s often said that wines today are good to be drunk younger, although it should be clear that they are not actually made to be drunk younger. What is actually happening is that the methods used to make wine are continuously improving all over the world. As a result, wines can be drunk younger without any loss of quality, but it must also be emphasised that they also keep and age just as well and perhaps even better than before.
So, is wine driven more by nature than by science or intuition?
The terroir is the most basic and important element in winemaking. Without the terroir one cannot produce an exceptional wine. However, intuition can definitely play a role at a specific time in the life of the vineyard with regard to weather and climate, and mistakes in this regard could be disastrous. In short, there are three things to consider: without terroir one can do nothing, but intuition can certainly play a role in the life of the vineyard with regard to weather, and improved processes continue to bring greater precision and clarity.
You also own a vineyard in Hungary: Tokaj Hétszölö. Over the last few years, wines from the Adriatic region have risen in estimation within the wine world. Why does this area excite you?
My reason for being interested in Hétszölö was twofold. One of the very few estates on Mount Tokaj, it’s a unique estate that has existed since 1502. Since then, it’s almost always belonged to royalty – notably to the Austrian emperor for three centuries – and its wines were drunk in all the European courts. It’s therefore a product that comes with a whole history – and is equally exceptional in terms of quality. Harvested grape by grape, Hétszölö wines have an intrinsic delicacy and acidity that’s found in very few others.
With more people focused on sustainability, health and wellness than ever before, do you feel concerned about the future of wine?
Not at all. While there are undoubtedly other products that are less beneficial to one’s health that probably are under threat, I’m convinced that drinking small quantities of an excellent wine made in as natural a manner as possible is very good for one’s health.
What is luxury to you?
Luxury is many things. It’s the ability to provide a unique experience for our clients who live as if they were the only ones to be able to access it; it means nurturing our clients’ curiosity and appealing to their intelligence. It goes without saying that the services that we provide for our clients – for which they often pay a lot – have to be top class, but today that’s not enough. One has to provide an experience that makes an impression and is unique. Perhaps visiting Cos and taking part in creating a blend: turning a simple visit into an exceptional experience. It’s about going the extra mile no matter what it takes.
What would you want your legacy at Cos d’Estournel to be?
This wine has been produced over centuries, during which each person brought his own contribution. Since I’ve run the estate, every action that we’ve taken has been driven by the question, “What is good for the wine?” – knowing that every decision could have long-term consequences, the impact of some of them being measured when I’m not there any more! I have the feeling that I’m bringing the best decisions for the years to come, while knowing that I am only passing through.