I’ve never been to Chateau d’Yquem. In fact, while I’m laying all my cards on the table, I haven't even tried a glass.
But it’s definitely on my bucket list of destinations to visit and wines to taste. And if you’re a wine lover like me, it should be on yours too.
Located in Sauternes, the Gironde region in the southern part of the Bordeaux vineyards known as Graves, Château d'Yquem is celebrated for making what is often described as ‘the greatest sweet wine in the world’.
Yet in truth, great wines are not born just anywhere, by accident. Beyond the brand, heritage and human effort, it takes a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of climatic and geological conditions (otherwise known as the ever-elusive French term of ‘terroir’) to form a rare equilibrium that results in a legendary wine like this. It should come as no surprise that the region of Sauterne offers just that, with Château d'Yquem enjoying the best growing conditions in the whole appellation.
After 400 years of family ownership, Yquem was finally sold in somewhat bitter circumstances to Louis Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy in 1999 (wouldn’t it have been a thing to be a fly on the wall in those discussions?). However, its former owner and director Alexandre de Lur-Saluce remains in charge, maintaining the highest standards admired the world over.
With a 2016 Chateau D’Yquem Lur Saluces selling for a price tag of R8000, the question stands: What makes a wine worth that kind of money? As it turns out, it’s more than just good marketing (although Yquem are really really good at that too):
A League of Its Own
For sweet white wines, only Château d’Yquem has a classification of Premier Cru Supérieur—it is quite literally in a league of its own. It shares this prestigious classification with the Bordeaux Big Five: Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux.
The story goes that the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac was drawn up at the same time as the most famous 'Bordeaux Classification' (Medoc and Graves 1855). The two were presented together at the Exposition Universelle de Paris of that year, at the request of ruler Napoleon III. The white wines, then of much less importance than red wine, were limited to the sweet varieties of Sauternes and Barsac and were ranked only from superior first growth to second growth. Twenty-six of the finest sweet white wines from these two regions were classified and ranked according to their market value.
Initially, there were just two divisions (Premier Cru and Second Cru), but Chateau d'Yquem rated so highly that it was granted its own individual rank, 'Premier Cru Supérieur'. And so, it remains to this day, sharing the title with its fellow red rulers and catapulting the price tag into the honey-scented atmosphere.
How Sweet Thou Art
Unlike many sweet wines, Sauternes is not late harvest (whereby grapes are picked last during the harvest for the grapes to be at their ripest and sweetest). Instead, cool, humid nights cause a fungus called ‘Botrytis Cinerea’ to develop. Thus, Sauternes gets its complexity from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes which have botrytized, meaning they have been “infected” by a fungus (also referred to as ‘noble rot’). The fungus lightly covers the outside of the grape skin, creating a light layer of mould that dehydrates the grapes, leaving them shriveled and raisin-like and concentrating the sugars and flavours.
Wines made from these berries have a rich, complex, honeyed character and are often high in residual sugar with a desirable luscious mouthfeel. Of course, by losing so much water content, this process is also what makes the wines expensive to begin with, as it takes exponentially more work and more vines to squeeze out a bottle of wine.
An Unwavering Commitment to Quality
In addition, noble rot is not an easy natural element to control in the vineyards - especially as it must happen soon after grape maturity. As it stands, Yquem is located on the highest hill in Sauternes. The 110-hectare vineyard is planted with 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. In order to harvest only the grapes that have achieved the maximum concentration levels, the harvest at Chateau d'Yquem can last for weeks and involves several passes (up to 6 or 7 times) by 150 specialised harvesters. Amazingly, the harvesters will go up and down the vineyard avenues, picking individual berries (berries people, not bunches!). Despite these efforts, the yields are so low that each vine produces approximately one glass of wine.
On average, 65,000 bottles are produced each year. In a poor vintage or when noble rot does not develop, the château doesn’t release a vintage under its label and sells off the juice anonymously as the crop is deemed unworthy of bearing the Château's respected name. This happened nine times in the 20th century: 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, and 1992 and once in the 21st century in 2012.
Yquem is then fermented in 100% new oak barrels and is left in barriques to mature for up to 36 months. With barrels costing up to R30 000 each and 36 months of downtime, there’s a further two hefty expenses for the winery to incur.
Understandably, this method of harvesting and winemaking is extremely expensive and only the top chateaux in the region are able to afford it - but it also pushes up the margin on the end product higher and higher.
Drink Now … Or Enjoy In 200 Years
Yquems are known for their exceptional longevity: it can seemingly age forever. So much so, that in 2011, a bottle of Château d’Yquem 1811 (I mean, have you ever?) sold for a white-wine record of R1,776,762 to buyer Christian Vanneque, a French sommelier who planned to drink it on the 50th anniversary of his career in wine.
Yet, if you yourself are not ready to splurge on a vintage Yquem just yet, here’s added motivation to purchase a young one: you’re buying an investment. The reason for this is that Sauternes sweet wines have a high acidity and sweet fruit flavours. If a wine doesn’t have much acidity, it becomes flabby and flat over time. If a wine doesn’t have much fruit, it will be too tannic and may taste too dry. Yquem is a wine that you can buy at the birth of your child, lock away in a correctly stored cellar space (please!), and give as a gift when your baby turns 21. Or maybe, if you save your bottle for long enough, you can even auction it. In 2017, an 1847 Château d’Yquem was estimated at R303 720– R455 580 at a Christie’s auction.
In truth though, you don’t have to wait 100 years to drink your treasured Yquem should you want to buy one. When it’s young, it’s just as good, brimming with tropical fruit and stone flavours that simply develop over time into more tertiary spice, caramel and butterscotch aromas. The option of drinking a Yquem young is unlike a lot of the coveted Premier Cru Bordeaux wines, which are made to age and will be much too bold and tannic to begin with.
Note: If you’d like to see the vintage variation from year on year, the Château d’Yquem offers a beautiful vintage chart, showing the bottles shot from the top as they evolve from light straw to deep, luscious honey shades.
Introducing Château d'Yquem 'Y' Ygrec
Since 1959 (though not every year), Château d'Yquem has also produced a dry white wine called Ygrec (the French pronunciation for the letter "Y"), made from an equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc.
A considerable detour from the sweet wine that brought the Château fame, Ygrec is made from the same vines as Château d'Yquem. It is also particularly rare, with a limited annual production of 10,000 bottles a year.
The difference comes in with the way the grapes are picked and the wine is made. While initially the wine was made using the last bunches left on the vines affected to varying degrees by Botrytis cinerea, since 1996, Y has developed to be more ‘in tune with the times’ by displaying the qualities of freshness and crispness the wine drinking market so loves (and seemingly demands). While Y was produced irregularly for many years, in 2004 it was decided to make it annually, and so the Château committed to harvesting certain plots of Sauvignon Blanc at the beginning of the vintage, making sure to pick perfectly ripe bunches. This is then followed by harvesting Sémillon grapes that have just reached maximum ripeness. Naturally, the wine receives meticulous attention during fermentation and winemaking, with the final blend being made after tasting.
Hopefully, whether Ygrec or Yquem, the one ‘Y’ we questioned has been answered.
For the first time ever, Chateau d'Yquem 'Y' Ygrec is available in South Africa via Port2Port.