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Returned from India

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Call of the sea

“Retour des Indes,” or “Returned from India”: a foray into the archives of Cos d’Estournel reveals the origins of this highly unusual label on some of the estate’s bottles. Starting in 1838, or perhaps even earlier, Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel began shipping his wines to India by boat. When some of these bottles made the return journey, he came to the realization that traveling the seas had accelerated the aging of his wines, sublimating them.

Was this discovery by the man also known as the “Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe” a simple question of chance? Most likely. After all, Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel had developed a passion for India and was already shipping his wines there. It was upon returning from a journey to India with some unsold bottles that he understood that the thousands of kilometers traveled had developed the maturity and complexity of his wines.

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In 1843, the Congress of French Winemakers evoked the conditions of bottles of Cos d’Estournel that had made the round-trip journey to India.

In 1867, winegrowing and winemaking specialist Raimond Boireau mentioned a scientific experiment carried out on bottles of Cos d’Estournel 1848. In his work on Bordeaux methods for exporting wine, spirits and liquor (Traitement pratique des vins, spiritueux, liqueurs d’exportation par les méthodes bordelaises), he explained how perpetual movement impacted the aging process of wine. “We compared wines of Cos-Destournel 1848 . . . that were bottled and shipped in 1851 with the same wines that had been cellared. Upon their arrival in 1852, the wines that had made the journey and had a good deal of sediment . . . were cellared.
One month later, we tasted and compared them with the wine that had remained in France, without decanting them. The differences in color, aroma and flavor were great: the wines that had made the return journey had taken on a tawny hue, their bouquet was more developed and they had more aromas; the wines that had remained cellared were still a vibrant red color; they had more fruit and were rounder and smoother, giving them a much less markedly vinous character than the others.”

Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel had made a significant discovery, and his continued pursuit of the singular, outstanding results of sea travels on his wines led to great success. Some of his neighbors would even be inspired to follow in the audacious path of the “Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe” . . .

Other research has since revealed that passing the Tropics or the Equator, temperature changes, the length of a journey, the movement of the waves and even the oxidation brought on by temperature differences and saltwater have unexpected results and often lead to very generous wines. Indeed, these effects had already been observed as early as the twelfth century, when wine was found to be greatly improved after having traveled from France to England on boats departing from the Gironde.

The most recent experiments have confirmed that the natural, regular rocking of waves tends to improve the aging of wine and that unique flavors are developed by the movement of the bottles, or the barrels in which wine was once transported, stocked in the holds of ships.

Indeed, water continues to benefit the quality of wines even after they have been bottled.

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