This is a bit of an unusual post for me, and though I think I can make it worthwhile, some context is required before I dive into my hundredth wine post, the Château d’Yquem Sauternes 1997.
In the wine trade, there are some things that are sancrosanct. To many they include such things as the first growths of Bordeaux or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of Burgundy. They’re never questioned in terms of how good they are. They are just regarded as the pinnacle against which other wines are measured. There are certainly complaints as to how much they cost, or their availability, but their quality is only ever judged within a very limited context, and that is vintage to vintage. The only way to judge the quality of a particular DRC is to compare it against the other DRC vintages. You’ll only ever see someone comparing a first growth Bordeaux to another wine when they’re trying to tell you how good the other wine is, not when they’re trying to tell you about the first growth itself.
And so while those wines are rarified and in a class all their own, Château d’Yquem takes that to an even higher level, and I don’t just mean because in the 1855 Bordeaux Classification they were the sole producer rated Superior First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur). People not only compare Château d’Yquem to other vintages of the same, sometimes they restrict themselves to comparing it to its own vintage, just tasted at different times throughout its development. Given the longevity of the wine, that still leaves a great deal with which to work.
All of this is my way of saying that I will certainly endeavour to tell you about Château d’Yquem, about sweet wines of Bordeaux in terms of the grapes used and how they are made, and I’ll tell you a bit about Sauternes the region. However, when it comes to assessing this wine, there are people who are experts on Château d’Yquem who will be writing books where this wine will comprise an entire chapter. For my part, I did jot down my tasting notes, and I can certainly tell you what I found in the glass, but there are others able to judge this wine in the manner it is most appropriately assessed with the full context of other vintages and other tastings of this vintage. That said, let me tell you what I can about it.
First, the region. Sauternes is an area of Bordeaux in the Graves district, along the south bank of the river Garrone, near where it meets the tributary Ciron. It’s a a low lying area with some gentle hills and soils of gravels, limestone and clay, and its climate is broadly maritime though it is among the furthest of the Left Bank regions from the Atlantic. What makes the area special geographically is the interactions of the rivers. The Ciron is spring fed and typically cooler than the tidal Garrone. Where the two rivers meet, mists form in the autumn evenings, blanketing vineyards until the following day. The moisture encourages the growth of Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot, a type of fungus that removes moisture from grapes, concentrating their sugars, acids and flavours, while adding a unique flavour of its own. While the resulting grapes are rather unappealing in appearance, that is raisins covered in mold, what remains inside is capable of producing some of the most intense and long lasting sweet wines.
The traditional grapes of Sauternes are Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, for richness, acidity and aromatics respectively. Yields are incredibly low – limited by regulation to less than half of what many neighbouring areas allow, but in practice typically much lower still. Producing wine from botrytized grapes is a gamble, even in the best of years, as waiting for the grapes to shrivel on the wine exposes them to the whims of the weather. Yields vary greatly year to year, and in some years conditions are so unfavourable very little wine is produced.
Producing Sauternes is also very expensive. Grapes are hand harvested, but as botrytis can be quite patchy in its attack, often several passes through each vineyard over weeks are required, multiplying costs. Fermentation often takes place in barrel, leaving a sweet wine of roughly 14% with another 4-7% potential in unfermented sugar. Barrel ageing over 18 to 36 months is then required, often with new oak, before the wine may be sold.
This is not the first time this blog has come across Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc, but as I’ve not written about a Bordeaux white blend, a quick word is in order. While Bordeaux is best known for its great red wines, and to some extent for its great sweet wines such as this one, it also produces some fine white wines as well. Traditionally everything in Bordeaux is a blend, with the red style being imitated the world round. California producers went so far as to coin the term Meritage to describe the blend of red grapes in their context. The white blend of Bordeaux is classically described as Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. However, there are some other white grapes grown for base level white Bordeaux AC, including Ugni Blanc, Columbard and Merlot Blanc. So while Sauternes producers are best known for their sweet wines, they retain the option of making still wine from their grapes.
I can only cover the very basics with regards to Château d’Yquem, but here it goes. The property itself dates to 1593 when it was acquired from the French monarchy by Jacques de Sauvage, and vines were first planted in 1711. There is a great deal of history over the subsequent 300 years, including the appreciation of Thomas Jefferson when he was based in Paris, the subsequent 1855 Classification, and no small amount of family intrigue and struggles. Fast forward to the end 20th century and it is majority owned by Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, and soon thereafter is being run by Pierre Lurton of Château Cheval-Blanc fame.
The vineyards themselves are 113HA in total, with roughly 100HA in production at any given time. The vines are 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, eschewing Muscadelle. They ferment in barrel, and typically keep wines in new oak another three years, with yearly racking. They’ve also employed the very expensive process of cryoextraction, whereby grapes are exposed to very low temperatures, and then immediately pressed, with only juice being extracted from the ripe grapes while the less ripe grapes are completely frozen and thus yield no juice. Roughly 8,000 cases are produced annually, a small percentage of the wine made by other classified producers. In addition to their sweet wine, they also produce a dry white in some years called Y or Ygrec.
As you can tell from the photo, I was tasting this from an Enomatic, paying dearly for each sip. While it is expensive, I did once manage to buy a half-bottle to accompany the starter and dessert of Thanksgiving dinner, and it was magnificent.
This wine is clear and bright in the glass, with a medium amber colour. The nose is clean, developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of honeycomb, orange marmalade, a hint of vanilla, and some lemon rind. On the palate it was sweet, with high flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol, a full body, medium plus acidity. The palate delivered what the nose promised, with all parts of an orange – the peel, oils, marmalade, but not orange juice – rather candied orange. It had long length and a marmalade finish.
This is a wine of outstanding quality. The concentration and complexity is fantastic. I don’t have the context required as far as multiple tastings of d’Yquem and revisiting of past vintages to do this wine justice, but if the only way you’ll get to enjoy it is a small tasting sip, it is still well worth the experience. It’s the perfect wine with which to toast a hundredth wine post, and so I raise a glass to the next hundred.