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…

Day Eight: The Sweet Town of Sauternes and our Favorite Lunch at Les Sapien

The town of Sauternes is a charming little town right in the middle of the vineyards of Sauternes.  Before lunch, we walked through the town, looking at the various buildings and shops.

Christina Watt in the town of Sauternes.
Christina Watt in the town of Sauternes.
Bob Watt in Sauternes.
Bob Watt in Sauternes.
Sleepy and quaint.
Sleepy and quaint.

We came across a cute wine shop that was doing a tasting of Chateau Lamothe Sauternes.

The super cute wine shop.
The super cute wine shop.

Miriam, the delightful woman running the store, happily shared these wines with us:

Miriam was very gracious.
Miriam was very gracious.

2009 Chateau Lamothe – Nice bright nose of peaches and pears.  In the mouth, very fresh peaches, pears and some spice, with good acids and a complex long finish.  The finish of this wine stays in the mouth long after it is gone.  A very nice wine and one to look for.

2005 Chateau Lamothe – Bright nose of white peaches with a little spiciness.  In the mouth, white peach, hint of pineapple and a slight spicy honey note.  Very good acid on the slightly spicy white fruit medium long finish.

2001 Chateau Lamothe – Subtle but very complex nose of peaches, pears, green melon and spicy honey.  In the mouth, very delicate flavors of white peaches, pears, spicy young pineapple and a hint of honey.  Keeps changing in the mouth.  Very good acid and a very long complex finish that won’t quit.  This is a very nice wine and one to look for if you can find it.

2000 Chateau Lamothe – A more mature nose of yellow peaches and some ripe pineapple.  In the mouth, ripe peaches and pineapple combined with a little mango.  Decent acid and a nice long finish of ripe fruit.  The 2000 doesn’t have the energy of the other three vintages, but it is drinking well now.

After the tasting, we wandered across the street to Les Sapien.  Honestly, if we had realized how good this lunch would be, we would have made way more time for it.  We were on time for our reservation, but it was scheduled tightly, with a visit to the fabled Chateau d’Yquem looming large.  What a shame it was, because this lunch was easily one of the best meals we had on our trip.

A partial patio view of the restaurant, Les Sapien.
A partial patio view of the restaurant, Les Sapien.

After the starters, Christina got a pork tenderloin dish that was truly amazing, while I opted for the fish, which was also very well-prepared.  If you know me, you know I’m not a dessert person – while I can tolerate the sugars in wine, I don’t typically do well with the sugar in most desserts.  This dessert, however, was a rare exception.  Blue cheese ice cream.  I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say I can still remember how good it was – and how I had to fend off the occasional wandering spoon from Christina.  We had a very nice dry white wine with our lunch, produced by Chateau Suduiraut called Suduiraut Blanc Sec.

2011 Chateau Suduiraut Blanc Sec – Very bright and crisp, with strong lemony acidity, almost like a Chablis (which I love).  Very nice white fruit and green melon with just a hint of spice from oak.  Nice medium-long clean and refreshing finish.  I have never seen this wine in the states, but I will look to see if I can find it.  It is a great summertime sipper, especially while overlooking the vineyards.

I think this is the only picture we got of the food.  We were in such a hurry, That it wasn't until we were about halfway through that we realized we should have really been recording more of the meal.
I think this is the only picture we got of the food. We were in such a hurry, that it wasn’t until we were about halfway through that we realized we should have really been recording more of the meal!

We had to depart the restaurant all too soon, but we vowed to return again one day – for a leisurely dinner on their spectacular patio.  If you are ever in the area, this is a must-stop restaurant.  Next up – the legendary Chateau d’Yquem!