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Cos d’Estournel: New Spa, New Manager?

For many years now, Jean-Guillaume Prats has been the public face of Cos d’Estournel. In fact, the association between Jean-Guillaume and the estate in question has been so strong that I have on occasion found it easy to forget that he is manager here, not proprietor. His presence during the primeur tastings was always confident, forthright and ultimately charming as he delivered what was always one of the more positive spins on the latest vintage.

Jean-Guillaume Prats at Cos d'Estournel, April 2012

The Prats family did indeed own Cos d’Estournel up until 1998, when it was acquired by the Merlaut family’s Taillan Group, an organisation best associated with Chasse-Spleen and Gruaud-Larose, to name just two of their properties. Two years later Cos was sold again, this time to Michel Reybier, a name better associated with luxury spas, apartments and hotels than vineyards. His hotels and spas can be found in Saint Tropez, Paris and Geneva. And although he owns vineyards in Hungary, Cos d’Estournel remains the jewel in the crown when it comes to the viticultural side of the operation.

For the past few years Jean-Guillaume Prats has been overseeing a huge amount of building work at Cos d’Estournel, more so than at many other cru classé châteaux. Other estates have seen renovation and restoration, but the work at Cos d’Estournel goes on and on. On my most recent visit to the estate just a few weeks ago, the cranes were still in position, lorries and other construction vehicles dotted about the screened-off building site at the back of the domaine. The picture below was taken even earlier this year, in April 2012. You have to wonder – with the château’s golden sandstone now restored and gleaming in the Bordeaux sunshine, and the multi-million-euro cellar with its laser-welded stainless steel milk vats finished years ago, why the work goes on. The word in Bordeaux is that Cos d’Estournel will be the latest addition to Michel Reybier’s portfolio of luxury accommodation, a vineyard and spa combined. Well if it’s good enough for Smith-Haut-Lafitte (home to luxury spa Les Sources de Caudalie), why not Cos d’Estournel?

Crane at Cos d'Estournel, April 2012

In his time since he was appointed manager, in 1998 at the time of the Taillan takeover if I recall correctly, Jean-Guillaume Prats has shaped Cos d’Estournel into a dark, extracted, saturated, concentrated, occasionally inky example of St Estèphe. The wines divided opinion; some loved them – Parker and those who emulate his scores in particular – but others were less convinced. I would include myself in the latter category. I don’t deny that Jean-Guillaume has had a great deal of success with the path he has taken, but personally I think the style he has given us from Cos d’Estournel works fine when souping up the rather dull and austere wines of the Médoc – so hats off to him for his rather attractive and drinkable Goulée – but a more sensitive hand might, for my palate, be more beneficial when working with a great terroir like that at Cos d’Estournel.

I know a few others feel the same, and so the news of his departure – which filtered out of Bordeaux on October 15th – will no doubt be met with a mixed reaction. Some will no doubt be disheartened, and shocked to hear of his departure in the middle of harvest. I don’t think this is the result of a heated mid-harvest bust-up though, like that between Pinguet and the Hwangs (OK, that wasn’t mid-harvest, but it was certainly acrimonious), as Jean-Guillaume won’t be leaving in the middle of the harvest (an event that did befall Lafon-Rochet only a few years ago – catapulting Basile Tesseron into the hot seat) until January 2013. Rumour has it that he has his eyes set on pastures new, away from Bordeaux (rumoured to be Spain). This will mean new blood at Cos d’Estournel, and I wonder what effect that will have on the style of wine. Whatever happens, I wish the charming and ebullient Jean-Guillaume well with his future career.

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