Behind the Scenes at Bordeaux’s Beautiful Chateau Cos d’Estournel
I have been lucky enough to visit a few of the great wine regions of the world including the Napa Valley (USA), Stellenbosch (South Africa), Tuscany (Italy) and our very own Margaret River and Barossa Valley regions. I’ve also cruised along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, passing by Wachau Valley’s wine growing province (Austria) and Rheinhessen (Germany).
All of these places are beautiful in their own right, and produce magnificent wines, but one wine precinct stands out like Goliath above the rest, and that, of course, is Bordeaux in France.
Bordeaux is one of the most famous wine growing regions in the world and home to the ‘Bordeaux Blend’ (70 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 per cent Cabernet Franc, 15 per cent Merlot). It’s here that many of the best red wines are blended from a selection of approved grape varieties, and they also do some cracking whites.
Recently I was lucky enough to visit one of Bordeaux’s most exclusive and historical wineries, Chateau Cos d’Estournel.
The drive from my city centre accommodation took about 90 minutes and before I knew it I could see the chateau’s famous and unique pagodas that feature on the labels of each bottle.
Louis Gaspard d’Estournel, nicknamed the Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe (he imported wine to India, hence the nickname) founded Chateau Cos d’Estournel in 1791.
He was convinced the terroir (the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate) of this estate was exceptional and took it upon himself to take risks to enhance it. He invested massively in the acquisition of neighbouring land and in due course expanded his vineyard from 14 to 45 hectares. Today the winery extends to over 100 hectares.
Eventually d’Estournel, who lived close by but never actually lived on the estate, sold the property but returned later only as a resident and eventually died there. A statue in his honour is prominently located at the entrance to the winery.
Today the Cos d’Estournel is owned by Switzerland’s successful hotelier Michel Reybier, who recently built a splendid eight-bedroom private villa on the estate that boasts indoor and outdoor pools and spas and a most impressive private wine cellar.
Mr Reybier stays there when in Bordeaux, but when he is away it can be hired in its entirety. This residence also comes with a house manager, chef and private tours and tastings.
I was taken on a tour of this magnificent property and its surrounding gardens and private courtyards. The residence has doors and fittings imported from India and Zanzibar. In fact, the entire estate boasts an array of foreign treasures due to d’Estournel’s past connection with the Orient.
It was late September when I visited Bordeaux and luckily for me that meant it was harvesting time and I had the opportunity to get involved in the collection process. I was met by my guide, Vanessa, and driven to an area of the winery where the harvesting was in full swing. The warm autumn sun beat down upon us and the deep purple grapes bunched up on the bright green vines screamed out to be picked.
The grapes are harvested entirely by hand by a team of people who come from Ermita Nueva in Spain. They have worked at the château since 1974 and include grandparents, mums, dads and their children, many from the same families.
I only assisted in harvesting for about an hour, but it will go down as one of my finest travelling memories as I observed these enthusiastic workers who, though only doing it for a few weeks of the year, harvest the grapes with love and passion.
After my harvesting contribution I was taken on a tour of the barrel rooms and other controlled temperature areas including the remarkable cellar that houses priceless bottles of wines dating back many decades.
In 2003, the château was equipped with insulated, cone-shaped vats for optimal juice extraction. They were specially designed for the estate and were the first to be used in the winemaking industry. In 2008, Cos d’Estournel was also the first Bordeaux estate to install a 100 per cent gravity-flow cellar. This unprecedented innovation was designed and developed by the château’s teams to meet their specific requirements. The entire winemaking process is driven by gravity, as this makes it possible to preserve the character of the fruit and fully express the complexity of the terroir.
After my extensive and fascinating tour I was invited to a lunch that was being held in the winery’s refurbished horse stables and included the entire Cos d’Estournel staff, harvesting team and also the owner, Michel Reybier, and his colleagues. Long communal tables draped in red and white chequered tablecloths hosted lively conversations as traditional food and a selection of their wines were served.
This was such an intriguing day that gave me a unique insight into the running of a hugely successful operation at one of Bordeaux’s finest wineries.