What a better end to two amazing and most vinous months in Bordeaux, than a visit to the international gold standard of sweet wine (vin liquoreux). Of course I am referring to none other than Château d’Yquem, the sole Premier Cru Supérieur from the 1855 Classification.
The château itself dates back to the 12th century; however, it was not until 1711, when Léon de Sauvage purchased the estate, that the first vines were grown. In 1785 Léon’s only descendant, Françoise-Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem, married Comte Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces. This marked the beginning of the Lur Saluces dynasty, whose control of the estate spanned 4 centuries. By the time Lur Saluces had taken over, Yquem was already an international symbol of quality and royalty. Thomas Jefferson cherished the wine so much during his visits to France that he brought back hundreds of bottles for himself and for President George Washington. Furthermore, Yquem became the wine of choice of the Russian tzars. Contrary to what many may assume, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the painstaking practice of picking and vinifying botrytised grapes was implemented. This noble rot is of course indispensable today for the production of Yquem and all Sauternes cru classé wines for that matter. Jumping into the 20th century, from before the First World War until 1968, Marquis Bernard de Lur Saluces presided over the estate. His predecessor was Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces, who managed the estate for nearly 40 years. In 1999 LVMH purchased the estate, ending the over 200 year reign of the Lur Saluces family. LVMH’s Chairman and CEO, Bernard Arnault, personally acquired a 50% share hold of the estate with the other half maintained by LVMH. Although the Lur Saluces era was over, the family left many legacies that will secure Yquem’s eminence for years and hopefully centuries to come. The installation of an elaborate drainage system of over 60 miles of pipes is considered to be one of Lur Saluces’ most significant contributions and keys to Yquem’s world class quality. The Comte stayed on as general manager until 2004 when Pierre Lurton took over as Yquem’s General Director. Mr. Lurton also manages Château Cheval Blanc, a Second Growth Saint-Emilion estate.
Yquem’s terroir is said to be first and foremost the key to the estate’s nearly uncontested quality in sweet wine production. The estate’s size is 189 hectares; however, 126 hectares are planted and only 100 hectares are qualified for producing Sauternes AOC. The average age of the vines is 30 years, and roughly 3 hectares of vines are pulled and replanted each year. The composition of grapes is 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, which, contrary to most estates, correlates almost directly to the final blend of each vintage. The soil is composed of a mixture of clay, sand, and gravel; however, what makes Yquem’s terroir so unique is that virtually every parcel has a unique soil composition. The estate believes that the diversity of the soil is critical to the quality and expression of the wine. Furthermore, the estate’s location and orientation is essential, providing a perfect environment for producing botrytised grapes. The large Landaise Forest to the South, the Garonne River Valley to the North, and the Ciron River to the west, surround the estate on all corners, providing a perfect microclimate that results in cool morning fog and hot, dry afternoons. It would he hard to recreate in a laboratory a better incubator for the botrytis cinerea Noble Rot.
The harvest typically begins around mid September and can last anywhere from 15 days to 3 months. Mother Nature is truly in control and her will must never be questioned, as only the select botrytised berries will be picked. A team of around 150 workers will complete 5 to 11 passes through the vineyards during the harvest period, picking one by one the botrytised grapes. Naturally, the yields are small, averaging 9 hectoliters per hectare. It is estimated that only one glass of Yquem is produced per vine. And as an example in 2000, due to the unrelenting rains and subsequent crop loss, the yields dropped to a staggering 2 hectoliters. At the average stage of grape maturity, yielding 9 hectoliters, the residual sugar level is around 300 grams per liter, producing the desired natural alcohol level of around 20%.
Each day’s harvest is split up by parcel and varietal and upon arrival at the château, 3 pneumatic presses will be completed. Each press produces a progressively higher level of alcohol and residual sugar concentration. All three presses are combined and sent to barrel for fermentation in 100% new oak. Once the desired 12.5% to 14.5% ABV is achieved, fermentation is stopped by a freeze shock at zero degrees Celsius. Chaptalization is strictly avoided. The resulting wine has a residual sugar content of around 125 grams per liter. By Spring each barrel is blind tasted to deem if the wine is worthy of the Yquem label. As the cellar master noted, the estate makes either Yquem or nothing. There is no second label, lower-quality production, although since 1959 the estate began bottling a new label called “Y”. “Y” is harvested earlier and is a higher alcohol, non-botrytised, dry wine. Once the Yquem wine is selected, which can amount to anywhere from 15% to 80% of the harvest, the barrels are moved to the main cellar to complete their 3 years of barrel aging. In the history of the estate, 9 vintages have been completely declassified and sold to négociants for bottling as generic Sauternes wine. The declassified vintages with no Yquem production were 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, and 1992. In addition to the drainage system and the ideal microclimate, it is this attitude of nothing less than perfection, regardless of the financial loss, that ranks Yquem among the world’s top sweet wines year after year. On average 120,000 bottles of Yquem are produced annually.
Although the tradition at Yquem was always to never sell en primeur, future sales began once LVMH assumed ownership. Some critics worried that Yquem’s character would change under the hands of this corporate behemoth; however, the en primeur sales have truly been the only change to occur at Yquem. The meticulous vineyard management and drive to perfection in the cellar haven’t been altered in any way.
At the end of the visit I tasted the latest 2006 vintage …
2006 Château d’Yquem
Tasting Notes: 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. 14% ABV. The nose is powerful and aromatic with an explosion of beautiful tropical fruits, including pineapple, peach, citrus and subtle notes of spice and minerality. In the mouth this wine is cloying at first with a syrupy texture but at the same time it is delicious with a velvety smooth mouth feel and good acidity that balances out the wine in the midpalate. There are flavors of prunes, raisins, bitter orange and peach peel, and pears, followed by more raisins on the long, long finish.
Rating: 18/20 (WS 95-100)
Price: ~400€ @ Snooth.com