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Château Cos d'Estournel: The Modern Era

Charles Cecil Martyn permitted Louis Gaspard d'Estournel to continue living at Pommies because it would seem he had no intention of using any of these acquisitions as a residential property. An absentee landlord, he remained distant from the affairs of the estate, appointing none other than Jérôme Chiapella, proprietor of La Mission Haut-Brion, to look after the vineyards and wine. The duo must have been popular employers, as their success was measured not only in how they raised the quality of the wine, but also in their forward-thinking approach to their workers. They received free healthcare, and retired employees were housed rent-free on the estate. Some of the practises instigated by Martyn and Chiapella are still true of Cos d'Estournel today, despite the fact that the estate has seen a succession of owners since their time. In 1860 Martyn sold Cos Labory, which he had acquired alongside Cos d'Estournel, and in 1869 he also sold the latter. The new owners were an aristocratic family from the Basque region named Errazu, who seem to have established a reputation for socialisation more than viticulture, hosting numerous high-society soirées. This lasted but two decades, however, as in 1889 the property came to the Hostein brothers, who also owned nearby Montrose, who then in 1894 passed it to Louis Victor Charmolüe, who had married into the Hostein family.

Château Cos d'Estournel

The modern era for Cos d'Estournel really began in 1917, when the estate was acquired by Fernand Ginestet. From Ginestet it passed through the hands of his daughter, Arlette, who married into the Prats family, to her three children, Jean-Marie, Yves and Bruno Prats. Until very recently the Prats family in particular Bruno Prats and then his son Jean-Guillaume Prats have been in charge at Cos, although there have been some subtle changes in ownership. In 1998 the family sold up, and the estate was acquired by the Merlaut family who, as owners of the Taillan Group, are more readily associated with names such as Chasse-Spleen, Gruaud-Larose, Ferrière, La Gurgue, Citran and Haut-Bages-Liberal. Nevertheless the Prats family remained heavily involved in the running of the estate, as they were two years later when ownership once again changed, as the estate was acquired by industrialist Michel Reybier.

Michel Reybier & Jean-Guillaume Prats

As I have already indicated in my introduction to this profile, Michel Reybier came to Cos d'Estournel with the necessary financial clout to undertake an extensive restoration. That work which relates to winemaking, such as the no-expense-spared cellars, I described in the next section on vinification. Other work which has brought the rest of the estate up to scratch has included a clean-up of the château and archway and extensive rebuilding behind. Nevertheless, despite his eagerness to invest and improve, Reybier had no intention of directing work at Cos d'Estournel himself. This he left to Jean-Guillaume Prats, who stayed on as manager of the property after the Reybier purchase.

Only a few years after acquiring Cos d'Estournel Reybier decided to add another icon to his wine portfolio, settling on an historic Californian estate, Château Montelena. This news leaked out in July 2008, following a tease from Robert Parker posted on his web forum when he announced that "one of the biggest stories in my 30 years in the wine field" was about to break. When he revealed the big story to be the "purchase of Montelena by Cos", the majority of forum members failed to share his enthusiasm for the news, with a subsequent poll showing most thought it a let-down, or simply didn't care at all. In truth of course Cos didn't really buy Montelena, although the simplification of the true nature of the deal into the soundbite above was understandable. In fact Michel Reybier was to be the buyer, and the control of Montelena was to be turned over to an executive committee headed by Jean-Guillaume Prats alongside Cos chef de cave Dominique Arangoits, together with Montelena winemaker Bo Barrett and managing director Greg Ralston. As it happens, however, by November the same year it was revealed the deal had fallen through, so this small storm-in-a-teacup can now take its rightful place as a minor footnote in the story of Cos d'Estournel.

Château Cos d'Estournel

Coming back to Cos d'Estournel, Jean-Guillaume Prats, pictured above, was a divisive figure. Many admired his drive, pushing forward with strident energy an ambitious programme of investment and improvement at Cos d'Estournel. Many looked up to him as an influential figure in modern Bordeaux, the face of a revitalised château which was challenging the first growths in terms of effort and quality. And many also enjoyed the type of wine he fashioned here, which shifted away from a more typical style of gravelly-perfumed St Estèphe, to one much more inky, saturated and concentrated. In fact many people - on occasion, I confess, myself included - forgot that Reybier even existed, as Prats seemed no different to any other of Bordeaux's successful nouveau riche proprietors such as the Cathiards at Smith-Haut-Lafitte or the Tesserons at Pontet-Canet.

On the other hand, it has to be said, Jean-Guillaume was not universally loved. Many saw him as typifying the hyperbole that pervades throughout modern Bordeaux, where there are now only two types of vintage, excellent and vintage of the century. There was never any bad news coming out of Cos d'Estournel, only good, Prats seemingly a master of spin; the primeur literature presented during the 2011 tastings, which omitted to mention that harvesting began early following the devastation of a section of the vineyard by hail, was a classic example of this. In addition, many people - sometimes myself included - failed to find the joy in the new style of Cos d'Estournel that so many flocked too. Clearly, while inky-saturated wines will always be popular in some quarters, there is no reason for us all to fall in love with such wines.

Nevertheless, with prices higher than ever, Prats clearly had the recipe for success. So why did he leave in late 2012, an announcement made mid-harvest? Did he tire of securing fame and fortune for the estate, something that must smart a little when that estate is no longer truly in your family's possession? Or was it that he was presented with a better offer? Whatever the reason, Jean-Guillaume Prats is, from February 2013, no longer the face of Cos d'Estournel. He has left to take up a post with LVMH, and his replacement is Aymeric de Gironde, who left his post as international commercial director at AXA Millésimes, where he looked after the interested of Château Pichon-Baron, Château Suduiraut and Château Petit Village, in order to take on the management of Château Cos d'Estournel. (15/10/08, updated 16/9/09, 28/10/12)