By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published March 24, 2004
LONGBOAT KEY – I cannot refrain from bragging about this pairing of food and wine: All of the courses matched vintages of Cos d’Estournel from the last three decades at one of Bordeaux’s most beloved names.
If Cos d’Estournel does not impress, I could note that the guest of honor was the successor to a French maharajah.
Mais oui, the estate was so famous 150 years ago that its wines regularly were shipped as far as India. The proprietor styled himself the maharajah of St. Estephe and put pagoda towers and doors from Zanzibar on his chateau, curios that remain today just up the road from Lafite-Rothschild.
To those who know and admire Cos, I’ll detail the indulgence by the numbers: ’75, ’93, ’96, ’86 and, most gloriously, ’70. If you happen to have these in your cellar at $100 to $400 a bottle, my advice is to give ’96 and ’86 more time, but you can open the other three now for luscious drinking.
The occasion was a private dinner for 24 in a Longboat Key condo to introduce potential donors to Grapes for Humanity, a charity founded by Michael and Arlene Willis, a Canadian-American couple who bring together their connections in the world of wine to help victims of land mines. A four-course meal from Morton’s Catering of Sarasota accompanied talk of rehabilitation and prosthetics and toasts to Franco-American friendship.
One came from Jean-Guillaume Prats, who runs Cos d’Estournel; his family owned it for three generations, making him a successor to Gaspar Estournel. When pressed to talk about the Raj tradition, he will give a bow of a mock swami. At 34, he embodies the dietary paradox of grand French cuisine, a lean-and-fit man with the well-finished look of an English schoolboy. But he is serious about philanthropy.
“We are so lucky; we must give something back,” he says.
Still, what to make of the treasures he contributed from his cellar?
Tasting through 30 years of a great name offers delicious object lessons in patience and the attributes of greatness in wine. Yes, there are bottles that are worth decades and hundreds of dollars; and the great names of Bordeaux can still uphold that tradition.
Cos has two significant distinctions. The first is unmistakable: a bouquet so spicy it hints of cedar and herbs and, if you can’t shake the memory of the maharajah, curry. The other is an intensity of deep colors and dark fruits and a firm, steely structure of tannins that makes it one of the slowest and most long-lived of Bordeaux.
Both hallmarks were apparent in the wines; their great aging potential allows you to taste that theme through immense variations, from sensuous to muscular, the characteristics a single year can wring from a single piece of land. With age, the scaffolding is removed, and what remains is beauty: rich in flavor, sometimes luscious, sometimes delicate.
“In Bordeaux, we do not have bad vintages,” Prats says. “Some are great and others are . . . more modest.”
Indeed, the chateau rates its years as exceptional, great, very good or years with difficulty – as were most of the 1990s. But 2000 ushered in a string of beauties, or at least they will be, when they grow up.
For this dinner, the ’93 was the youngest that was ready to drink, and it was silken. The ’96, a great year, and even the ’86, are more aggressive, fine amid the riches of duck in vanilla and Madeira or lamb with figs, morels and anise. These two will get even better later. The ’75, almost 30 years old, has a grace that combines finesse and freshness, making it perfect with a first course of fish and lush foie gras. Starting with an older wine may be heresy, but Prats says, “It’s something I do more and more, and this still tastes young.”
However, the ’70 had matured into a chocolatey richness, almost a syrup that matched the creamiest Explorateur and bleu cheeses at the finale.
The land that produced all of them is a stubby hill of pebbly gravel, called a cos, a few hundred yards from the great, broad Gironde, the waterway that has defined Bordeaux for centuries and delivered it to the wine-drinking world.
On the far side lies the Bordeaux many Americans love best and understand the most easily: Pomerol and St. Emillion, where the reds are famously and softly heavy with merlot.
On the southern side of the river is the Medoc and its communes, chateaux and vineyards, where blends rich in cabernet sauvignon fill bottles that will last happily for decades and have been known for centuries.
Chateau Cos d’Estournel sits on 170 acres in St. Estephe, the finest wine in that district, and right on the border with Pauillac, the heaviest hitter in Bordeaux.
In the great classification of 1855, which identified the region’s grand crus or great growths, wine merchants tapped four chateaux as premier cru, three of them in Pauillac, and ranked Cos in a second group of 15 great growths. Over the years, its strength won many fans, who regarded it a “supersecond” with more value and less hype than some grandees. In an unofficial reclassification in 1998 by Robert Parker, the American critic put Cos in the first rank.
What makes it special? The grapes are much the same each year, mostly cabernet, some merlot and occasionally cabernet franc and petite verdot. The harvest and much of the work is still done by hand and, while Prats uses some modern tools, he strives for the old character – and knows it, for he has drunk of the 1870s.
The land is largely the same, a well-drained hill of pebbles and limestone, where most vines are now 30 years old, densely planted and forced to reach their roots deep for water.
The only explanation the chateau makes is in the glass, year after year, different and the same.
If the mystery seems out of reach, one of the great advantages of Tampa Bay life is the wine cellar at Bern’s Steak House, where old Bordeaux vintages are common and fairly priced. Its Cos collection goes back to 1937 and includes that fine ’93 at a bargain $99.
You could also teach yourself a lesson in patience by dropping $100 on a future from the 2003 Cos d’Estournel. Yes, the French summer was murderously hot and the crop was cut almost in half, but Prats says the remains have made a remarkably ripe wine. When it comes out next year, set it aside for another eight, at least.
Might as well buy two. You’ll probably open one too early.
– Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of “The Buzz on Wine” Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or [email protected]