What’s in a name? that which we call Sauternes, by any other name would taste as sweet. My butchering of the Bard aside, when it comes to the great sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac there is one name that stands out above them all; Château d’Yquem, with its vines on the highest slopes in the area, is literally top of the appellation and considered so great that it was given a category all of its own at the 1855 classification – Premier Cru Supérieur.
I’m not going to try and recount its history here, that has been done many times before (try Chris Kissack’s Château profile on the Wine Doctor site) but suffice to say I’ve know about d’Yquem almost from the beginning of my wine obsession as it is a name that often crops up in “serious” wine conversations, magazine reviews of special tastings or one-off celebrations. However, I’ve never had great expectations of visiting the Château itself – or actually tasting the wine – so it was exciting to discover that the itinerary of the AdVintage Summer Tour of Bergerac and Bordeaux included a day in Sauternes and Cadillac and a tour of Château d’Yquem.
The Sauternes appellation has 2200ha of vines on left bank of the Garonne, 40 kilometers south-east of Bordeaux, and is composed of 5 communes; Barsac, Fargues, Preignac, Bommes and Sauternes, the latter with 416ha of vines. The area is crossed by the Ciron, small tributary of the Garonne which has much cooler water than the main river. This leads to early morning mists forming around the vines, encouraging the formation of mould on the grapes – or to be more specific spores of Botrytis cinerea. Elsewhere such mould in damp conditions would lead to grey rot (bunch rot) which destroys the crop, but in Sauternes (as in other great sweet wine areas) the mists quickly burn off as the sun rises leading to the more acceptable Noble rot, which gently desiccates the berries and concentrates the flavours and sugars.
At harvest time pickers pass through the vines over several days or weeks in successive tries picking the raisined berries, which leads to low yields per hectare. The maximum allowed for Sauternes is 25hl/ha although most Château achieve less, with the most quality orientated coming close to single figures – and there can be none more fastidious than d’Yquem.
Even just pulling up through the entrance gates of the Chateau, with a simple engraved “d’Yquem” on one of the pillars, there was a sense of style about the place – precise, focused, arranged style. Row after row of well tended vines, manicured lawns, a colour explosion in the flower gardens and clean-lined buildings greet you as you walk around, never mind the iconic and beautiful Château itself which we could see as we were guided around by our perfect hostess Anne, who proved what a small world it is by recounting her time spent in Northumberland, at Alnwick visiting friends!
On 80m high slopes overlooking the appellation the estate has 113ha on gravel, clay, limestone and sandy soil. The ancient geological history of the region is highlighted just across the Garonne by the 20 million year old wall of fossilised oysters in the village of St. Croix du Mont, also famous for sweet wine production.
Château d’Yquem has a dedicated team of staff managing its 33000 vines – 80% of Sémillon (dual spur pruning) and 20% Sauvignon Blanc (single Guillot) – without herbicides, the vines trained lower to the ground that in other appellations. 20 women and 17 men (only the men do the pruning) each have their own plot of vines to tend following time honoured procedures throughout the year and they are well trained in identifying the signs of Noble and Grey rot. There are two older plots of vines, one from over 60 years ago, planted around 1945, and the “younger” one of 30-33 years. In reality only about 100ha is productive, with about 12ha in various stages of grubbing up and replanting, but apart from 6-10,000 bottles of dry white made each year (under the Y – Ygrec – label) it is all destined for the noble wine.
Well, I say “all”, but production is miniscule with each vine pruned to have only 10 bunches, a potential yield of no more than 16hl/ha. 200 hand-pickers are used for each harvest, each team led by one of the d’Yquem staff who double-check each grape offered up before a final selection in the winery by the technical team – if it doesn’t come up to scratch it is not used. The Sauvignon Blanc is watched closely as it is the earlier maturing variety but also less susceptible to the Botrytis.
Grapes for the Ygrec (produced since 1959) are decided very early in the process; if there seems to be a good chance of Botrytis they wait, but if not they go into the dry white which usually ends up as 60% Sauvignon Blanc. Typically during harvest the pickers pass by each vine 5-11 times going grape-by-grape, aiming for at least 20% potential alcohol (300g/l sugar). There are high discard rates, up to 80% of grapes don’t make the grade and by the end it is not uncommon for each vine to yield only one bunch, the “one glass of wine” that is often claimed. There have been 9 vintages of d’Yquem totally abandoned this Century; 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974 and 1992 – hopefully 2012 will not continue the 20 year pattern that’s starting to form!
We were led directly down the impressive spiral staircase to the underground cellar, built in 1987, because the original 1826 cellars were getting renovated (as the occasional hammer blow and drilling sound from upstairs testified). Descending into the cool, dark depths we were met by sturdy oak doors which opened to reveal row upon row of barrels; the previous vintage (2010) on the left, the current (2011) on the right and the Ygrec 2011 at the back. The first blending of the 2011 vintage was due to begin that month (July) and there was a spicy bite of sulphur in the air as racking had just been completed.
The 2011 harvest finished on 5th October after 27 consecutive days of picking, 27 passes meaning 27 different fermentations being managed. There was only an hour between picking and pressing of the grapes: the first gentle press using 1bar pressure; a second press at 2bar; a third press at 3bar; then destemming and a final press at 10bars.
Ygrec is fermented in tank before being transferred to 30% new oak (70% “old” Sauternes barrels) for 10 months, but it is the Sauternes that gets the special treatment. The pressed juice goes into 100% new oak (medium toast) starting at 360g/l of sugar and, depending on the volume of grapes from each pass, is fermented either by variety or based on the soil type the grapes originated from. Fermentation is stopped by the addition of sulphite at 125-135g/l and the barrels remain in the ground floor cellars for 6 months before being taken underground for a further 2 years. Of the 27 fermentations from 2011 the lowest volume was 2 barrels, the highest about 80 barrels (at least that’s what I heard, but the more I think about the more I wonder if she said 18?), so there’s a lot of logistics to manage during this phase of the process.
A full audit is kept on each fermentation and which barrels don’t come up to scratch so that any possible failure at any stage of the process can be identified. Of the potential 16hl/ha at start of harvest only 8hl/ha remained following all the selection, discarding and further downgrading.
Anne moved us on before the sulphur could really irritate and led us to the tasting room. This was a surprise to us all as we believed that it was a tour only, but Anne calmly lined up 17 glasses and started to pour a cold bottle of the 2006, condensation forming on the outside. In keeping with the whole visit she was precise and elegant during the pouring, each glass identical.
I had to take a video so I can relive the moment when I’m in my dotage, although right now the memory is clear and vivid. I recall seeing barrel spittoons in the pristine room and wondering if they’d even seen a golden drop?
And so to the wine, although I fear my limited tasting skills can not do it justice. The colour was rich and radiant with a golden sheen, the honeycomb-acid nose had a sweet savouriness to it. There was a silken texture, some caramel and a gentle tang of acidity to balance and layered flavours across the palate. Acacia honey and saffron was suggested by Anne for the taste, which I will not discount – honey for certain. The length was superb, an endless finish, sheer bliss. No matter how coloured our judgement may have been by heightened emotions of the occasion it was sublime, coating the mouth with flavours and textures that you wanted to continue forever. I have no doubts on calling this a 5 star wine (97-98pts), probably the first I can truly say that for.
During the tour Anne touched on the previous family ownership of the Chateau, from de Sauvage d’Yquem between 1593 to 1785, then the de Lur Saluces until 1996 when ownership moved from family to corporation with LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton S.A). The French luxury brand installed Pierre Lurton (also director of Château Cheval Blanc) to run the Estate, taking over from Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces who stayed around for a further 3 years, no doubt relieved to be finally done with the family in-fighting and punishing inheritance laws. From what I saw and tasted, after more than 10 years of Lurton running the ship, Château d’Yquem, the pride of Sauternes and makers of a golden elixir, is in good hands…with a little help from St. Vincent!