Day Eight, Second Stop: The Esteemed Chateau d’Yquem

My wife first fell in love with Chateau d’Yquem at the Poncho Wine Auction in Seattle at least a decade ago.  The auction had set it up so that every time someone won the bidding on a live auction item, you would also get a glass of 1983 Chateau d’Yquem from a six liter bottle.  Some friends of ours at the auction “won” a lot of auction items, so they had a lot of Yquem flowing their direction. We were pleased to be the lucky recipients of  their “spare” glasses.  It was at this moment that Christina had her first wine epiphany about Sauternes and Chateau d’Yquem in particular.

You see, this was Christina’s first time tasting any Sauternes, much less Yquem.  After tasting the ’83 Yquem and not knowing how expensive it is, she told me that THIS was her favorite new wine.  I smiled and said, “Great, now your wine habit is more expensive than mine.”  We had a good laugh and I remember that moment every time we drink Chateau d’Yquem, which of course, is never often enough.

Christina Watt at Chateau d'Yquem.  Pilgramage complete.
Christina Watt at Chateau d’Yquem. Pilgramage complete.

The Chateau d’Yquem estate is quite impressive – here’s some quick history.  Back in the middle ages, Chateau d’Yquem was owned by the King of England, who was also the Duke of Aquitaine at the time.  In 1453, the southwest of France was again brought under control of the French crown by Charles VII.  In 1593 a local noble family of Jacques Sauvage was given the feudal rights over d’Yquem.  History showed that special winegrowing practices and late harvesting already existed at this time.  A few years later, the Sauvage family built the present Chateau and purchased more land around it make the current d’Yquem property known today.  In 1711, under the reign of Louis XIV, Leon de Sauvage d’Yquem, which had nobility status, was granted full ownership of Chateau d’Yquem.  In 1785, Leon de Sauvage d’Yquem’s great-granddaughter, Francoise Josephine married Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces.

Three years later the Count was killed in a horse riding accident and Francoise Josephine took over the management of the property.  The family maintained ownership of the d’Yquem property, until 1996, when the famous luxury goods company LVMH, purchased half of the property.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the family and LVMH was not a good one.  After multiple lawsuits, LVMH purchased the remaining half of Chateau d’Yquem in 2004.  LVMH then arranged for Pierre Lurton, who was already managing their other property, Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion to take over management of Chateau d’Yquem.

Another view.  The Chateau has a very Medieval feel to it.
Another view. The Chateau has a very Medieval feel to it.
The enormous turrets.
The turrets.

Chateau d’Yquem is located on top of a hill and is the highest point of elevation within the Sauternes region, which gives it a unique micro climate.  The vineyards of Yquem are planted with 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc.  We joined a group meeting under the shade of a tree on a small hill overlooking the vineyards to begin our tour.  It was a hot day, and we were all grateful for that bit of shade!

Overlooking the vineyards of Chateau d'Yquem.
Overlooking the vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem.
The cellars - dark, but an impressive sight.
The cellars – dark, but an impressive sight.

It was fascinating to learn that the same people generally harvest the grapes for Yquem year over year.  While this is not necessarily unusual for wine estates, what was unusual was that the same people generally pick the same few rows each year, so that they get to know their vines very intimately.  Given that they pick multiple times in a season – up to 13 times to harvest the individual grapes at their optimal ripeness – you can see how having the same people picking would be a great advantage.  You can also see how heartbreaking it would be for those workers when a year turns out to be disappointing with the weather, especially because Yquem is one of the few Chateau that will simply not declare and release wine in what they feel is a truly bad vintage.  The years that Yquem has not declared a vintage are: 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, 1992 and 2012.  They say it happens about once a decade, and it is a true testament to the level of quality they expect from their esteemed estate.  (It also explains the pricing and comparison to liquid gold.)

Heading out of the cellar to the tasting. Interesting architecture.
Heading out of the cellar to the tasting. Interesting architecture.

To that end, it was pretty funny to watch the group tasting the Yquem after the tour.  The tour guide mistakenly left an open bottle on the counter with about a quarter of a bottle left.  One of the gentlemen quickly spirited it away and gave himself a VERY healthy second pour, even tilting the bottle to his mouth and licking the last drops off the lip of the bottle.  I admit, we grimaced, but he seemed perfectly okay with his decision.  The guide caught the faux pas a little late, but quickly grabbed the other open bottle and very firmly replaced the cork before others had the same idea.

Part of our group in the tasting room.
Part of our group hanging out in the tasting room.

It is widely known that there is Sauternes, “and then there is Yquem.”  If it is a good year or  just an okay year, there is a noticeable difference between Ch. d’Yquem and everyone else in Sauternes, but it is more noticeable in the off years.  I have not found this to be the case in the other regions of Bordeaux or anywhere else in the winemaking world.   I do have to say though, that starting with the 2001 vintage, there are some unbelievably well made Sauternes out there now.  The competition is catching up to Yquem, but Ch. d’Yquem truly is still the King of Sauternes.

We tried the 2007 vintage that day, which was drinking pretty well, though it wasn’t knock-your-socks off good – even Christina with her deep affinity for Yquem quickly realized it was missing a little of the sparkle present in most of their wines.  Here’s my review:

2007 Chateau d’Yquem – Bright pineapple, spicy honey, dried apricot, good acidity, slightly cloyingly sweet.  Very good length in the mouth, sweet and spicy on a very long finish.  This is an excellent Sauternes, but only okay for d’Yquem.

Next up, the delightful Chateau Guiraud…

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