I have a special affection for Chateau Cos d’Estournel and its former owner Bruno Prats as my father used to go round our local branches of Cullens hoovering up Cos (pronounced as in the lettuce) for his mini-cellar when Cullens was virtually giving it away in the 1960s. One day, my father opened a bottle and kapow! It was perfection. Later on, when I first case dipped a toe into en primeur, it was to buy a case of the 1982 Cos, then £120 a case, now a bottle. One bottle accompanied me to Australia in 1999 when I was trying to attract the attention of an Aussie photographer, now my wife, so I can attest to its powers.
After obtaining degrees in agronomy and viticulture from Paris and Montpellier, Bruno, the grandson of Fernand Ginestet who owned Château Margaux, worked for a couple of years for his uncle Pierre at Margaux before taking control of the St.Estèphe cru classé Château Cos d’Estournel in 1970 with his mother and two brothers. Bruno sold Cos (it’s in fact not a château, but a chai with an unusual chinoiserie façade) in 1998 but 30 vintages at the helm endowed him with a very good idea of truly great terroir.
Unlike many of his countrymen who were imbued with the sense that terroir could only ever be something purely French, Bruno decided to set up three very distinct but equally interesting projects, two in the New World of Chile and South Africa and one in Portugal’s Douro Valley. ‘I wanted to go to places where I believed there were great terroirs which had not yet revealed their true potential’, he says . ‘I wanted to make wines that could be benchmarks from their region in the way Cos has been a benchmark for Saint Estèphe and I wanted to keep it small and boutique as making big money was not the major issue’.
Looking more like an accountant than a winemaker with his high dome, spectacles and serious demeanour, it was amusing to see him and his normally blue jacketed bordelais partner Paul Pontallier prancing about in ponchos for the London launch of Viña Aquitania, a Chilean venture that also brings Ghislain de Montgolfier of Bollinger and Chilean winemaker oenologist Felipe de Solminhac to the party. The accomplished 2005 Lazuli Cabernet Sauvignon, which I tasted recently, is a big improvement on previous efforts, but the most strikingly terroir-driven of Aquitania’s wines is the expressive combination of savoury richness and minerality of their 2006 Sol de Sol Chardonnay made in Chile’s southernmost Malleco Valley.
With an unerring nose for both sniffing out good dirt and, equally importantly, choosing the right partners, Bruno linked up with Hubert de Boüard of Château Angélus in St-Emilion and Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia in Anwilka. Located on the Atlantic-cooled slopes of the Helderberg region of Stellenbosch, Anwilka’s 12 hectares are the source of a wine made by a talented young South African winemaker, Trizanne Pansegrouw. Since its launch in 2005, it has become one of the Cape’s most acclaimed reds thanks to low yields, careful selection and the flexibility to blend the best grapes. While in 2006 it was two-thirds cabernet sauvignon, the 2007 is a spicier, more Rhône-like blend with shiraz the dominant variety.
Two New World projects are clearly not enough for the inquisitive Bruno Prats, who, with no European terroir on which to hang his hat, created Prats & Symington in 1998. A joint venture with the Symington family of the trinity of ports, Graham, Dow and Warre, Chryseia is a richly fruited modern expression of the Douro Valley made at the Symington’s modern Sol winery near Regua from the port varieties with touriga nacional the major component of the blend. The impressively rich and spicy 2005 Chryseia was particularly successful although hail in the Pinhão and Torto valleys knocked out a major component of the drier, more classic 2006. The Douro project is yet another feather in the tricorne with which Bruno Prats will be replacing the poncho to display the three points of his new compass.