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Château Cos d'Estournel: Louis Gaspard d'Estournel

We begin with the birth of Louis Gaspard d'Estournel, in January 1762, to a family from Quercy, a region to the south of Bordeaux which is perhaps more readily associated with wines such as Cahors than with claret. His origins are of significance, however, if we are to also understand the origin of the name of this château. For this information I am indebted to Clive Coates, who wrote in Grand Vins (University of California Press, 1995) that Cos is most likely to be a derivative of caux, itself derived from colline de cailloux, meaning ‘stony slope'. Although in French the terminal consonant in caux is silent, in the Gascon tongue the end consonant is most certainly vocalised, accounting for how caux may mutate into Cos (the 's' is pronounced) over the years.

Château Cos d'EstournelIn 1791, when Louis (pictured right) was just 29 years old, he inherited the family estate consequent upon the death of his father, Guy d'Estournel de Maniban. Over the ensuing years he added other lands to his holdings, acquisitions which included Pommies, today known as Château Pomys, a cru bourgeois estate, and some other vineyards, all in the commune of St Estèphe. At the time this latter purchase was perhaps unexpected; after all, most of the great vineyards of the Médoc were already established, and they were further south, in Pauillac. St Julien and Margaux. St Estèphe was yet to be fully exploited though, as evidenced by the later appearance of Château Montrose which only came into being in the early years of the 19th century, hundreds of years after some other comparable deuxièmes crus. Perhaps Louis Gaspard d'Estournel saw some hitherto unrecognised potential in the gravelly soils of the commune.

Despite Louis' admirable intent, however, the lands he had acquired had no vinous reputation of note; Cos d'Estournel received no significant mention in early classifications from the Tastet & Lawton archives, and it was not until 1815 that the estate appears as a third growth in a list drawn up by Lawton. By the mid-19th century the property was ranked somewhat higher by many, and of course by the time of the 1855 classification the estate was ranked amongst the second growths. Cos d'Estournel had arrived.

This success was no doubt something Louis Gaspard d'Estournel aspired to, but it was not something he achieved quickly or easily. Along the way there were major difficulties; despite his fiery enthusiasm his creditors withdrew their support for him in 1811, and he was forced to relinquish his ownership of the estate. It was acquired by a debt collector named Jean-Louis de Lapeyrière, who held onto the estate for ten years, subsequently selling it back to Louis and a small consortium of Bordelais businessmen in 1821. Although not the owner, Louis Gaspard d'Estournel had remained at Cos throughout these difficult years, and he clearly had strong ideas of how it should be developed once he regained full control. In the three decades that followed he added numerous plots of vines to his estate, purchasing neighbouring Cos Labory in the process, an act which resulted in the best plots of that latter estate forever being absorbed into the Cos d'Estournel vineyard. Success eventually came, evinced by an improvement in the quality of the wine, and confirmed by a rise in the customary classifications as discussed above.

Château Cos d'Estournel

Settled in, and seemingly financially secure, d'Estournel looked to renovate his cellars. Eschewing the usual materials, Louis Gaspard opted for the aforementioned sandstone. In terms of design, the cellars were also unique. Perhaps reflecting his many travels in the Orient and beyond, which brought him the nickname of the Maharajah of St Estèphe, the cellars sprouted tall pagodas which would be more at home on a Chinese temple than here in the Médoc. The doorway, decorated with vines, grapes, flowers and leaves, was sent over from the Palace of Zanzibar. And against the road he constructed an imposing triumphal arch (pictured above), rather like the one found at Léoville-Las-Cases; in this case there sits above the archway his coat of arms, surrounded by the customary combination of lion and unicorn. Beneath lies the inscription Semper Fidelis, 'always faithful', a motto more commonly associated with any number of military regiments across the globe, such as the United States Marine Corps, than the wines of Bordeaux. In parallel with these developments his wines were exported to similarly exotic climes, in particular India.

One cannot help but feel, on reviewing the story of Louis Gaspard d'Estournel, that he was a showman, and perhaps a showman with more flair than sense. He was renowned for hosting spectacular festivities at Cos, and for presenting his guests with bottles marked Retour des Indes (meaning 'returned from India'); Louis felt that the wines demonstrated a distinct improvement after making this lengthy round-trip. Bottles of Cos d'Estournel graced the tables of Queen Victoria of England, Tsar Nicolas I of Russia and Emperor Napoleon III of France, who reputedly ordered thousands of bottles to stock the cellar at the Tuileries Palace. And the patronage did not stop at royalty; the wine was also known to Henri-Marie Beyle, better known by his pen-name of Stendhal, and with time would come to be favoured by Jules Verne, the dramatist Eugène Labiche and even Karl Marx who received a number of bottles sent over to his home in London in 1857 by fellow philosopher Friedrich Engels. Nevertheless, although the success of Cos d'Estournel seems irrefutable, it was not without ultimate failure. The financial difficulties of the 1820s have long passed, but by 1852 Louis Gaspard was once again in a similar predicament. Subsumed by debt and probably in ill-health he was forced to sell his beloved estate, and just a year later - two years before Cos would claim forever its second growth status in the 1855 classification of the Médoc - he died. At least his final months were spent in some comfort, as the new owner of his properties, a London banker named Charles Cecil Martyn, allowed d'Estournel to stay on in his house at Pommies until his demise. (15/10/08, updated 16/9/09, 28/10/12)