The Elephant in the Room: 2009 Ch. Cos d’Estournel

Take away the Pauillac first growths and there was one wine that I wanted to taste from 2009, one that I was looking forward to from the start, one chateau whose name kept catching my eye when I was going through our itinerary.  Cos d’Estournel.

At this stage I already knew that Jean-Guillaume Prats had made something  controversial.  James Suckling had put his note up, as had Jancis Robinson.  Just from these two it was clear that opinions were already polarising.  A couple of colleagues had already tasted the wine, as had a couple of pals.  I was eager to see where I pitched in.  Would this be something ethereal for me?  Or would I find this to be Merlot soup?  This was one reason for my keenness.

A year ago, 2008 Cos d’Estournel was one of the wines of the vintage for me.  The first vintage at Cos to go through Jean-Guillaume’s spaceship of a winery.  To say that the chai at Cos is impressive is to say that Jordan has an ample bosom, or that Wayne Rooney is pretty decent at fitba.  What I thought when I first saw it, entered it was: everyone in Bordeaux is going to want one of these soon.  And they do, and there are now cranes at Cheval, Lafite and a few others.  But back to the point.  JGP had made something very impressive in 2008, which was a difficult year.  One got the impression when tasting it that every last nuance of quality, every last drop of spirit (I mean dynamis, not alcohol), of class, had been drawn from the vineyards.  This was absolutely and totally the best wine that could have been made from these vineyards in this year.  So what could he do in 2009, the third vintage of the century if we count 2000?  And a hot one, which can favour St Estephe.  This could be a chance at something legendary.  This could be the bus that takes you to perfection.

The first note up was from James Suckling.  His score: 97-100 (more on the facility of scoring later).  His note: “This smells like Harlan a bit. Supercharged in fruit, with intense aromas of tar, spice, cardamon, clove, blackberry and black pepper. Crazy nose. Full-bodied, with masses of fruit, yet focused and in form. Chewy tannins, with great length. This goes on and on. Incredibly exotic. Could be best ever from here?”

Which was pretty much what should be expected.  James Suckling can taste, he knows what he’s doing.  He has, I think, a bit of that American Cola palate thing – us Brits like a bit of suffering, some austerity, the Yanks worship pleasure a little more – but this is not a criticism.  I’ve seen the man pick 1970 La Fleur Petrus as “1970 Moueix” blind, which is pretty impressive (with the lame excuse that I was both pissed and nervous, I was thinking grand cru Burgundy from the mid-eighties: way off).

Next up: Jancis.  Her score: 16.5 (out of 20).  Her note: “Very dark indeed.  Blackish crimson.  Not much scent though obviously very ripe.  Firmer than some of the more obvious Napa Valley-style wines in 2009 with the tannins much more obvious.  But a coolness on the finish.  This may come round eventually. It is much more demanding than most 2009s and will need SO long.  A very exaggerated wine with a bit of a hole in the middle.  A definite lack of freshness.  Does remind me a little bit of Pavie 2003.  To be generous I’m assuming that in the far distant future it may resolve itself but I can’t quite understand why they let the grapes get so ripe.  Harvest dates are pretty similar to Ch Latour but the results are very different.  14.5%.”

Again this was maybe to be expected, and I still hadn’t tasted this wine.  The cynic in me (and there’s plenty of it) was thinking that there was more to this than the wine, that there was a 2003 Pavie debate coming on (this was the last wine that really split opinions, and brought on a whole UK vs US palate thing; the arguments you can read on this are hilarious).  Journos and critics are useless, or rather redundant, if no one is reading what they write.  Was this winehype to get people reading?

So then came me.  I was going to taste this.  The day came.

The morning started at Lafite (with the biggest crane of them all).  Ethereal, super-charged and impossibly elegant.  Not a bad start.  Then to Calon-Segur, where there is perfection in 2009, where they have chosen to make Calon-Segur – classy, cool, pure – as opposed to “2009”: fat, rich, forward.  Then Montrose: this is fat, rich and forward though with some real class underneath.  This is not a bad “tune-up” session.  Then to Cos.

You taste three wines at Cos: Goulee, Pagodes de Cos, then the grand vin itself.  Goulee can be hard work and Pagodes can be exceptional in good vintages.  In 2009 Goulee is a pleasure and Pagodes nothing short of excellent – a wine in its own right rather than just a second, just the wine that didn’t make the cut for Cos itself.  Indeed my one criticism of Pagodes is that it was almost too good, too well-engineered.

So, Cos itself.  The first thing I do is ask my neighbour if I can have a sniff of his because I’m not sure if mine is right.  But the bouquet of his is exactly the same as mine.  I do not have a dirty glass.  Compare my note with James Suckling’s and I can sort of get the “tar”.  But the whole thing is just too fat.  Ripe to the point of rot.  The aroma I’m getting, what is dominating, just isn’t right.  A colleague pipes up: “stewed”.  And this is it: stewed fruit, and Amarone.  No matter how hard I try to like this I can’t.  It’s all so top heavy, and nothing underneath.  None of James’s “focus”, none of Jancis’s coolness on the finish.  I’m confused.

I’m tasting with eight colleagues, some better than others at this game.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve been tasting with one of them for about ten years now: I rate him and I understand him.  Indeed it’s his glass that I’ve nosed to check consistency with my own.  He is in tune with me, the words “stewed” and “Amarone” in both our notes.  My “all over the place” is his “out of kilter”.  We just didn’t rate it.  We’d gone to the theatre but the actors fluffed every line.

Much discussion follows on our return to the office.  Our volcano-influenced travels, our luck in securing Eurostar tickets, et cetera dominate conversations for a while.  Then the elysian heartbreaker that is 2009 Latour.  Then, finally, the elephant in the room: Cos.  I am unhappy with what we tasted.  I do not believe that I have tasted the same liquid as James Suckling, nor Jancis, nor anyone else whose note I have read, and I am not (for once) alone amongst my peers.  This is an issue: we do not sell wine that we do not rate.

At the end of April, the Emperor of Wine pronounces:

“The 2009 Cos d’Estournel is one of the greatest young wines I have ever tasted … in the world! An extraordinary effort I tasted on two separate occasions, this blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest primarily Merlot with a dollop of Cabernet Franc has a whopping 14.5% alcohol, but a remarkably normal pH of 3.69. Kudos to Jean-Guillaume Prats and owner Michel Reybier for this amazing wine made from yields of 33 hectoliters per hectare. It will be a legendary claret that should last for 50-60 years. A black/purple color is accompanied by aromas of graphite, ink, creme de cassis, blackberries, cedar, and incense. Full-bodied and unctuously textured, with an ethereal personality, tons of nuances, and a burgeoning complexity, it is an enormously well-endowed, fresh, perfectly balanced tour de force in winemaking. As mentioned above, it should drink well for 50-60 years. This wine possesses this vintage’s classic characteristics of enormous power, massive fruit, and extraordinary freshness and precision – largely unprecedented, particularly for Cabernet-based wines in the Medoc. (Tasted two times.)”

He adds a “*” to his 98-100 score: this notes that the wine that he has tasted has the greatest potential he has ever witnessed in a wine from that particular estate.  This is a blessing indeed, and 2009 Cos d’Estournel will be expensive.  I’m almost relieved that Big Bob has given the wine such a strong endorsement: it confirms my feelings that what I tasted was not correct and it makes things easier from a commercial point of view – my opinion might swing a customer either way of the jury is out but with this sort of note that’s not going to happen.  I imagine that the relief and joy felt with anyone who has an interest in this wine is tangible: the elephant dances.

Different people taste different things and different people like different tastes.  Coffee and tea, and the adding of sugar and milk, are the easiest examples to think of.  Sugar in your coffee?  “Why?” is what I think.  It doesn’t really need elaboration.  It seems fairly clear to me that Jancis doesn’t “like” 2009 Cos.  It’s obvious that Robert Parker and James Suckling do.  .

My sample was drawn on the day I tasted it (the labels have dates) so this wasn’t a knackered bottle that had been sitting around for a day or so.  The weather was perfect for tasting: cool (well, at least in St Estephe where you really can feel the breeze), sunny and clear.  We tasted at the chateau, not some hot and overcrowded tent: there is no practical explanation for my sample being duff.

So, for me (and my note ends with these words): Jury Out.  I want to taste this again, preferably with someone else whose palate I know.  Ideally with a jury; Twelve Angry Men (OK, eleven plus Jancis).

A final thought: buying a wine en-primeur is a bit like buying a house off-plan, buying something before it’s actually been built.  A good architect and a good builder should do a good job (even though my note reads like the foundations are dodgy) but, even so, what if you just don’t like it when it’s finished?  If the kitchen is too small or you just don’t like how it looks?   This question may be redundant: wine is more than ever a commodity, an asset class, so what YOU think of it doesn’t matter – it’s what the market thinks.  It’s how much it is worth in terms of how much someone will pay for it rather than whether or not the contents of the bottle, and the pleasure contained therein, warrant the price.  But what if, once it’s finished, everyone thinks it’s a wrong one?  Or the market has decided that Crystal Palace isn’t quite as “up and coming” as was once thought.

I’m not sure where I stand with copyright here.  Jancis’s notes can be seen at www.jancisrobinson.com, James Suckling’s at www.winespectator.com, Robert Parker’s at www.erobertparker.com.  I stress that I do not feel my sample was representative, not just because of what the critics say, but mostly on account of a colleague – Big Phil – whose palate I trust implicitly, and who tasted it a week after I did.  He didn’t like it, it wasn’t his bag, but he did get the sense of something legendary in his glass and, most importantly, he got some freshness.

The merchants will also have their own notes up.  Find me a bad one and I’ll buy you a pint, despite the results of Liv-ex’s 2009  en-primeur survey.  Ha.

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