Sauternes de Château d'Yquem tasting case
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What lies locked inside every precious golden drop of Château d’Yquem? A myriad of complex, nuanced aromas flooding forth from the glass; a silky, sumptuous, voluptuous palate; a finish that spreads itself far and wide, resonating long after that drop is gone. A Bordeaux legend with an illustrious past that spans the course of four eventful centuries, Château d’Yquem is still crowned the one and only Premier Cru Supérieur of Bordeaux, a title befitting of its internationally adored label.
During the Middle Ages, when England still ruled over much of modern-day Bordeaux, Château d'Yquem belonged to the King of England who was also the Duke of Aquitaine. In 1453, under King Charles VII, the region was brought back under the dominion of the French crown. In 1593, Château d’Yquem passed to Jacques Sauvage, a descendant of a local noble family who would enjoy feudal tenure of the château before finally purchasing it in 1711. Even before claiming full ownership of the property, the Sauvage family made steps to transform it into what it is today, by constructing the château itself and meticulously replanting its vineyard, plot by plot. Records show that the practice of producing wines from grapes affected by noble rot already existed at the time, and Château d'Yquem benefitted from an ideal geographical location for the spread of botrytis cinerea.
In 1785, Francoise Josephine de Sauvage d'Yquem married Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces, who passed away in an unfortunate riding accident just three years later. At this point the widow took over management of the estate, keeping it in the family during the challenging years of the French Revolution and furthering its international reputation. In 1826, she commissioned the construction of a new wine cellar and, with the help of her steward Garos, perfected the technique of harvesting in multiple passes. The wines of Yquem had at this point attracted some very note-worthy clientele, including Thomas Jefferson who visited the château and is said to have ordered 250 bottles of the 1784 vintage for himself and George Washington. In 1859 the Grand Duke Constantine, brother of Tsar Alexander I of Russia, spent a whopping 20,000 gold francs for a 900-litre barrel of Yquem.
When Lady Yquem passed away in 1851, her grandson Romain-Bertrand de Lur Saluces became managing director of the legendary château, which at this point had become world-famous. As manager of the property, Romain-Bertrand de Lur Saluces made several important improvements, including the construction of a drainage system that today covers almost 80% of the Yquem vineyards. It was also during his ownership that the château was selected as the one and only Premier Cru Supérieur of Sauternes in the monumental 1855 classification of Emperor Napoleon III, a prestigious title the château bears to this day.
During the second half of the 19th century the château prospered, expanding its international reputation and foreign trade as far as Japan. But then, a more difficult chapter of Bordeaux set in. Phylloxera hit the region at the end of the 19th century, wiping out vineyards and requiring châteaux to invest enormously into replanting them. During World War I, while Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces was serving his country as an officer in the trenches, the château became a military hospital. After the Marquis returned to his beloved estate, he managed it for nearly a half century, staunchly protecting his family’s legacy through the harsh recession of the 1930's and the Second World War, during which he was held prisoner for 2 years. After returning for a second time to his estate, he continued to develop the international prestige of its great wine. Beginning in 1959, the château began producing a dry white wine called Ygrec (“Y”) from an equal blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. In 1966, just two years before his death, he designated his nephew Alexandre de Lur-Saluces to take over.
The young Count Alexandre de Lur-Saluces faced several challenges at Château d’Yquem, which included a series of not-so-great vintages, a Bordeaux wine trade severely damaged by the harsh events of history, and a very high new inheritance tax which threatened his ownership of the family estate. Nevertheless, the great success of the exquisite 1975 vintage, followed by a series of wonderful vintages in the 1980’s, allowed Count Alexandre to continue investing in Château d’Yquem and bring the estate back to an even keel. Gradually, the production of the legendary Yquem wines increased and, with the advent of the modern age, new state-of-the-art technologies allowed for huge advances in quality. At the end of the 1990's, the property was gradually acquired by LVMH Moet Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE, marking a new millennium and a brand new chapter in the history of Château d'Yquem.
Following its takeover by LVMH, the château came under the management of Pierre Lurton, who brought about a series of changes at the estate. First, Lurton introduced the en primeur system at Château d’Yquem with 1999 being the very first Yquem vintage to be sold en primeur. He kept the team (including the château’s long time technical director Francis Mayeur and cellar master Dr. Sandrine Garbay) intact, hiring Denis Dubourdieu as consultant winemaker. During this time, both the viticultural and winemaking side of things were fine-tuned at Château d’Yquem: increasing parcel selections for blending, changes in the pressing regime and a reduction of time spent in new oak from 36 months to no more than 30 months. One of the greatest changes was to the style of Château d’Yquem’s “Y” cuvee, which was transformed into a more modern dry white wine with an intense fruity richness. Rather than changing the signature style of this iconic Sauternes estate, the immense investments by LVMH in the past two decades have allowed Château d’Yquem to shine even brighter, expressing the full extent of its precious terroir and legacy of savoir-faire like never before.
The vineyards of Château d'Yquem extend over 113 hectares (290 acres) in the Sauternes appellation on the Right Bank of Bordeaux. For any given vintage, only around 100 hectares (247 acres) of vines are in active production. The rest are either undergoing a replant, left follow or in the process of growing to meet the strict standards set by the estate for vines considered productive. The land is planted with 75% Semillon, which lends a structure and body to the final blend, and 25% Sauvignon Blanc, which contributes signature aromas for a more elegant finish. The vines are planted in a warm and dry topsoil of flat pebbles and gravel upon clay subsoil with good water reserves, which are drained out using the drainage system built in the 19th century. The soil receives very close care from the vineyard team, with regular earthing and un-earthing. Only organic fertilizers are used to treat the soil, and only 20 hectares are fertilized per year. The vines are severely pruned in the winter and green-pruned in the summertime to control yield and maximize quality.
At this world-renowned Premier Cru Supérieur, grapes are picked only after they have reached 20° potential alcohol (or 360 grams of sugar/L). This is a risky endeavour, as the vineyard team faces the possibility of losing crops to the frosty conditions of late autumn. Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential to acquire the fully botrytised, sweet grapes required to make a bottle of Yquem. The phenomenon of botrytisation is a delicate one, which can only take place under certain meteorological conditions. Noble rot requires a certain level of humidity to set in and if this is not met, the grapes will not be botrytised on time. If it rains too much, however, the excess water dilutes the fruit, which loses its complex aromas. And while botrytisation is under way, different harmful species of mould may attack the grape, ruining them before the harvest. Each vintage of Château d’Yquem represents a success on the part of the vineyard team to protect the fruit, coupled with a bit of luck from Mother Nature. The harvest occurs only in vintages deemed worthy of the Château d'Yquem name, and is conducted in 5-6, even sometimes more than 10 passes.
At the winery, the grapes are pressed 3-4 times and the juices of varying sugar contents blended before barrel fermentation in 100% new oak, a rather rare phenomenon in Sauternes. At Château d’Yquem, only the finest stave oak barrels from central France are used and during the fermentation process each one is closely monitored. Fermentation stops naturally when the alcohol content reaches 12.5° to 14.5°, depending on the sugar content of the must (the ideal being 13.5° with 120-150 g/l of residual sugar). Each wine, grouped according to the days on which the grapes were picked, is aged 6-8 months, after which a preliminary blend is made and carefully tasted. Barrels containing those wines that are deemed acceptable are moved to the ageing cellar where they spend 20 months. During this time, each barrel undergoes 2 top-ups, 15 rackings and fining to remove sediments. The aged wines are then re-tasted blind and those deemed worthy are included in the rigorous blending session that determines the blend of the vintage. The Château d’Yquem namesake cuvee is bottled during the third week after its harvest.
Roughly 10,000 bottles of the Château d’Yquem Bordeaux dry white wine “Y” is produced per year. This wine is produced from the same terroir and the same vines than the Château d’Yquem sweet wine. Formerly, this wine was produced at the end of the harvest from the fruit that still remained on the vines and only in certain vintages. In 2004, the Yquem team made the decision to produce it in every vintage. So, the grapes are expressly picked for the Y cuvée at the beginning of the harvest each year. The blend usually contains roughly 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Sémillon. The wines undergo temperature controlled must racking and fermentation in a brand new vat room dedicated fully to this wine. The blend is aged on lees in barrels (of which only around one third are new and the rest from one previous Yquem wine) for a period of 10 months, with regular stirring.
Patiently waiting inside each and every sip of Château d'Yquem wine is an endless wave of complex aromas and flavours, which resonate long after leaving the palate. It begins on the nose with notes of apricots, mandarin oranges and tropical fruit, perfectly integrated with vanilla and the toast of oak. As it ages, the golden hue caramelises into a rich amber colour. The bouquet develops dried fruit (apricots and prunes), stewed fruit and jam, along with hints of spice (cinnamon and liquorice), as well as complex florals. In the mouth, the wine is smooth and luscious, coating the palate with its full body, voluptuous and powerful without becoming overbearing. Ageing it for multiple decades brings forth flavours of caramel, burnt toast and crème brulée. Each bottle of Château d’Yquem achieves what is considered a perfect harmony between sweetness and freshness. And that harmony lingers long on the palate, too much to say about its history and the artistry behind its conception to disappear any time soon.
While the team does their best to produce a Château d’Yquem wine each year, nature is sometimes not very generous. In fact, in the years 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, 1992 and 2012, this legendary Sauternes estate declassified the harvest and did not make wine. The most prized vintages of Yquem are: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1997, 1996, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1983, 1976, 1975, 1967, 1962, 1959, 1949, 1947, 1945, 1937, 1929, 1927, 1921, 1893, 1869, 1847 and 1811. The three vintages 1988, 1989 and 1990 are particularly famous.
The “Y” by Château d’Yquem is a wine produced in a totally different style. With its bouquet of citrus and white peaches, along with white flowers, this Bordeaux dry white wine offers a remarkable length on the palate. This is a wine that can either be enjoyed in its youth or aged some years in the bottle.