Unrivalled/Unequalled: Yquem 1921–2019
BY NEAL MARTIN | APRIL 19, 2022
Ali. Bach. Beatles. Bolt. Chippendale. Churchill. DRC. Hitchcock. Houdini. Jesus. Leonardo. Michelangelo. Miles. Parker. Pavarotti. Pelé. Shakespeare. Mononyms that at the peak of their powers were in a league of their own. It must be tough: you possess God-given talent, work tirelessly, push yourself beyond your limit, accomplish so much, yet there is unrelenting pressure to perform. The only way is down, and it’s a long drop from the summit.
To that list, add Yquem. Just as Shakespeare spent sleepless nights wondering if he could follow Hamlet, McCartney if he could write another “Yesterday,” Ali if he could floor his next opponent, and Jesus if water would still turn into wine, as Sauternes’ solitary Premier Cru Supérieur, Yquem must create a botrytized elixir that has an edge over others – unrivalled and unequalled – each and every year. And to make it even harder, success is at the whim of Nature.
Aside from the number of spellbinding bottles I’ve tasted over the years, two pieces of evidence affirm that Yquem’s exalted position is not undeserved. Firstly, in numerous blind tastings, it consistently trumps contenders to the throne. Blind-tasting Sauternes is not easy because of the accumulation of residual sugar, so Yquem’s supremacy is certainly not a given; indeed, there have been one or two occasions when it has fallen short. But it’s amazing how often it is deemed the best. Secondly, there is the roll call of off-vintages where Yquem has triumphed against the odds. There’s a strong argument that the litmus test of a great vineyard is not how it freewheels in easy vintages, but how it transcends difficult ones. In this respect, Yquem is unbeatable.
Looking at the blue skies here, it might be hard to believe this photo was taken in rain-plagued 2021.
This article has been a long time coming. It is the result of a steady stockpiling of notes back to early 2019 courtesy of multitudinous private dinners, a vertical tasting organized by estate director Pierre Lurton at Yquem in June 2021, and a second tasting with technical director Sandrine Garbay in London in early February 2022. During my two-hour discussion with Garbay, I gained a deeper understanding of this wine. Our exchange altered some of my preconceptions and corrected misconceptions. Such is the status of Yquem and the usefulness of the information I gleaned that I make no apologies for writing a lengthy, detailed account. Hopefully, once you have digested this epic piece (and like any Sauternes, you don’t have to consume it all at once), you will understand why Yquem is in a league of its own.
Yquem is a bona fide medieval fort, constructed by the Duke of Aquitaine, and it has all the architectural hallmarks of an English castle, with rectangular towers flanking each corner and a moat encircling the ancient battlements. Its name is thought to derive from the ancient German words aigan (“to have”) and helmut (“helm”), which were joined together to form “Aig-helm,” a common family name that evolved into “Eyquem” by the 16th century.
Portraits of Joséphine de Sauvage and Louis-Amédée de Lur-Saluces, whose marriage united two aristocratic families in Sauternes.
Jacques de Sauvage obtained the feudal rights to the estate in 1593 and oversaw the first château construction a few years later. In the 18th century, Léon de Sauvage gained sole ownership of the property. Thomas Jefferson, then US ambassador to France (and later the third president of the United States), brought Yquem to international prominence after his famous visit to the region in May 1787. In December of that year, Jefferson wrote to de Sauvage: “Not having the honour of making your acquaintance, I trust in your good faith to excuse me the liberty of writing to you directly. I will have need of some small provision of white Sauternes and I would prefer to receive it directly from your hands because I would be sure it is genuine, good and sound. Permit me then, Sir, to ask if you still have some of the Sauternes, first quality, of the year 1784, and if you would kindly let me have 250 bottles.” Jefferson was clearly being prudent by ordering directly from source, since even in this early chapter of Bordeaux’s history, unscrupulous merchants foisted counterfeits on unsuspecting clients. He ordered additional bottles for President George Washington and instructed their respective initials to be embossed upon the glass. Michael Broadbent M.W. tasted one of these precious wines in 1998 and described it at one point as “like a thoroughbred horse peeing on clean straw.” The bottle’s authenticity was subsequently questioned, but even if it was fake, at least it begat Broadbent’s inspired description.
The Lur-Saluces family became synonymous with Yquem following their grand entrance on the stage on June 6, 1785, when Joséphine de Sauvage was betrothed to Louis-Amédée de Lur-Saluces in a momentous union between two of the region’s most aristocratic dynasties. The Lur-Saluces were incumbent proprietors of Château de Fargues, located east of Yquem (and remain proprietors to this day). Their association with Yquem might have come to an abrupt halt when Louis-Amédée de Lur-Saluces died just three years after his acquisition in a horse-riding accident. Fortunately, this was sufficient time for his wife to give birth to their son and heir Antoine-Marie in 1786. Antoine-Marie also united two of the region’s dynasties when he married Françoise-Eugénie de Filhot in 1807. Antoine-Mari led a distinguished military career, and when he was taken prisoner in Russia in the early 19th century, he relied upon his mother Joséphine to hold the fort – literally. This redoubtable woman oversaw Yquem’s elevation to the most iconic and revered wine in the world. Incarcerated twice for her outspoken opposition to the excesses of the Revolution, she escaped the guillotine and oversaw the construction of a new wine cellar in 1826.
I don’t think the interior decor at Yquem came from IKEA.
The pivotal year for Yquem is 1847. That was the year they harnessed the benefits of noble rot to create a unique elixir instead of simply a very fine sweet wine. The apocryphal story is that Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces, the eldest son of the family, was late returning from a visit to Russia and the harvest was suspended until his return. When he finally arrived, bunches had begun to rot. With nothing to lose, he ordered the crop to be picked, and serendipitously found that the wine tasted delicious. Henceforth, Yquem endeavored to replicate this magical feat of nature. Author Richard Olnay doubts the veracity of this story. Ledgers suggest that selective late picking was being employed by 1810 (three passes through the vines, in case you happen to come across a bottle) and most likely as early as the mid-17th century. Given that sweetness in any consumable product, food and beverage alike, was a coveted virtue, it follows that there would be an incentive to pick very ripe, sugar-laden grapes. Olnay has a point, though the ledger entries indicate only a late-picked wine, not specifically the use of botrytis-affected berries. What is true is that a 900-liter tun of 1847 was eventually sold to Grand Duke Constantine, brother of the Russian Czar, for 20,000 gold francs in 1859. This then-astronomical sum enhanced Yquem’s reputation across Europe.
Thanks to the dedication and conviction of Bertrand de Lur-Saluces, Yquem benefited from improvements in the vineyard, such as the creation of a vast drainage system (details below) and the reconstruction of the winery. Yquem frequently traded for prices in excess of the First Growths, and it was a foregone conclusion that come the 1855 classification, it would be singled out for Premier Grand Cru status. During the halcyon days of the Belle Epoque, sweet wines were held in the highest esteem and commanded the highest prices, whether it was Vin de Constance, Trockenbeerenauslese or Sauternes. But none had the reputation of Yquem.
I adore this photograph that was kindly sent to me by Yquem. The exact year is unknown, but it dates from the early 20th century. I am not sure if the photographer asked these ladies to smile.
During World War I, the château at Yquem was turned into a military hospital. Following the conflict, during which he saw military action, the second Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces took over the management of the estate at the tender age of 30. He established many of the Appellation Contrôlée laws, vigorously opposing practices such as chaptalization and promoting château bottling. In World War II, he was captured and spent two years as a prisoner of war. After he was freed, Bertrand de Lur-Saluces devoted his life to Yquem until his passing in 1968. Lacking an heir, he prepared in advance to bequeath the estate to his nephew, Alexandre de Lur Saluces. Despite a succession of poor vintages and extortionate inheritance taxes, throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the winery was modernized and vines were replanted.
From 1996, Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury fashion house LVMH, began acquiring shares in Yquem, negotiating with shareholders within the Lur-Saluces family. Alexandre de Lur Saluces was vehemently opposed and launched several lawsuits to prevent family members from selling. Eventually, Arnault gained a controlling share. Alexandre de Lur Saluces accepted the inevitable and remained as a director before concentrating solely on Château de Fargues. Pierre Lurton took his place in 2005, working with chef de culture Francis Mayeur and cellarmaster Sandrine Garbay.
It is the latter three people who have traditionally welcomed me at the estate since my first visit, which, if memory serves, was in 1997. Lurton has often told me how lucky he felt when appointed to run Cheval Blanc and that he now pinches himself each morning that he has a second Premier Cru under his charge. Then there is Sandrine Garbay. Never seen without a smile, she has not aged at all since our first acquaintance. Meeting her again in February, I told her that a steady intake of botrytis must be the secret of eternal youth. Much like Lurton, Garbay is down-to-earth, with a refreshing sense of humor – a must when making a wine so fraught with risk. You need to laugh sometimes.
“My first vintage as cellarmaster was 1998,” she told me when we met in London recently. “It was my first job. I have a doctorate in oenology. After my PhD, I wanted to make wine, and I started at Yquem in 1994. I was in charge of quality control. We have a nice laboratory at Yquem, and I learned a lot with former cellarmaster Guy Latrille, who worked at Yquem for 45 years.”
Pierre Lurton has managed Yquem alongside Cheval Blanc for LVMH since his appointment in 2005.
I cannot explain why, but Sauternes is a region where it’s easy to lose your bearings. Despite the countless times I have driven around its lanes, I constantly have to ask myself if I’m heading in the right direction. Yquem, though, is easier to find: simply search for the highest point on the horizon, and hopefully you will spot the fortress that imperiously crowns the summit.
Château d’Yquem is a large estate covering 188 hectares, of which 113 are under vine and 100 are in production. It lies on two distinct alluvial terraces from the geological Quaternary period (up to 2.5 million years ago) that rise to between 72 and 80 meters in altitude from a base of 40–50 meters. Technical director Francis Mayeur told me, “Between these two deposits, the slopes have an older Tertiary-period outcrop of silt-clay or marl, sometimes with visible nodules and blocks of lacustrine limestone [i.e., limestone formed by sediments from a prehistoric lake].” The high percentage of gravel coupled with a steep gradient guarantees that the vineyard is well-drained. The topsoil is a mixture of clay and sand known locally as graves gasses, which translates less eloquently as “slimy gravel.” A stratum of abraded quartz deposits lies above limestone and clay subsoils and limestone bedrock. The northern sector of the vineyard, a lieu-dit known as La Grave, contains less clay and larger deposits. Garbay explained that this parcel is not the most propitious. Consequently, it often serves as a testing ground for pickers to practice before harvest. They need to make sure they can pick efficiently and distinguish not only between ripe and unripe grapes but also between noble and gray rot, the various stages of botrytization, and so forth.
In researching what distinguishes Yquem, I found a passage by renowned 19th-century agronomist Auguste Petit-Lafitte, who wrote: “It is true that a major difference exists between the wines of Yquem and those of the other grand growths in the Ciron valley. The very probable cause of this major difference must be sought in Yquem’s subsoil, and in the clay of which it is largely composed.” He goes on to suggest that on the Left Bank, diluvian currents swept away the clay, marl and gravel deposits, but for reasons unknown, this did not transpire at Yquem, which was left with the clay in situ and just a shallow gravel layer, around 12 inches deep. The clay layer can cause problems with drainage, hence the installation of some 60 miles of underground piping between 1883 and 1886 that covers around 80% of the vineyard. “There is a high proportion of clay, especially in front of the château, a mixture of clay and gravel,” Garbay told me. “There is clay and sand toward the south and, toward Rieussec, there is more clay and limestone. That does not necessarily give more acidity, but it does give a slightly different infection of botrytis. In the north part there is only clay and limon [silt].”
Sandrine Garbay in the central courtyard at Yquem.
A majority of rootstocks are Riparia Gloire, augmented by 3309 and 101-14, new plantings sourced via massal selection incepted in the early 1980s. This program began with the Sauvignon Blanc because at that time only one clone was available from nurseries. Once that was underway, the project was extended to Sémillon. Average vine age is 25 years. As I mentioned earlier, not all the potential vineyards are in production at any one time. “We rotate around 5 hectares each year,” Garbay told me. “We generally pull up old vines or those affected by esca, which particularly affects the Sauvignon Blanc. The plots are left fallow for six years before replanting.”
I’ve written before that the vines have a northeast–southeast orientation, but Garbay corrected me. “The vines in front of the château are planted northwest to southeast, though generally the orientation of the vines follows the topography. I suppose you could say that they mostly veer northeast to southwest.” Until World War II, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon were complanté, roughly one in five vines the former. After the war, the vineyard was reorganized so that parcels were dedicated to one variety, obviously facilitating vineyard husbandry, since in theory, fruit in one parcel should ripen uniformly. Biodiversity is vital at Yquem, and to that end, they cultivate 10 hectares of forest and 35 hectares of permanent grazing land, around one-third reserved for flora and fauna. Only organic fertilizer from farm manure is used.
With respect to pruning, Garbay explained that a majority is undertaken in January, subject to the sap being in retreat. “The aim is to spread buds and future bunches along the wire,” she explained. “The botrytis infection affects bunches evenly irrespective of how close they are to the main trunk. The only difference we find is down to the amount of water in the soil. We prune gobelet palissé. This is different from the three-dimensional goblet pruning that you see in the south of France or Spain. These goblet vines are trellised (you might use the term ‘espalièred’). We prune with three branches that each have one spur from the previous year and two buds per branch. That makes only six buds per vine. The aim is to have three well-spaced branches on the row so that there is plenty of air circulation, enabling the vine to dry efficiently the moment that botrytis attacks.”
Green harvesting is undertaken in a traditional manner, removing excess canes (épamprage), de-suckering (échardage) and de-leafing between May and August, subject to vigor, and hedging vines according to leaf surface and, again, vigor. Something particular to Yquem is that members of the vineyard team are responsible for specific parcels of around five hectares, so that they become intimate with the minutiae of their vines – not unlike Burgundy, where winemakers oversee specific rows of vines. I asked Garbay what happens if someone is dissatisfied with their allocated plot. “We had a woman who told us that there were too many young vines in her parcel,” she replied. “She wanted to work with older vines. Younger vines demand more work because they are more vigorous. We are always ready to accommodate. Some ask to change and others want to work more.”
I took this photo from the highest point at the front of Yquem so that you can see its height over the surrounding landscape of Sauternes.
On the subject of young vines, I asked Garbay about differences in terms of botrytis infection. “Younger vines tend to be more sensitive to botrytis,” she replied. “They rot earlier, probably because the vine has not built up strength and the berry skins tend to be thinner. They have less resistance. Older vines create more complex fruit. You need sensitivity to botrytis, but at the same time, you want a gradual infection in order to gain that complexity. That can take somewhere around two weeks.”
I asked if there is a pattern to the order in which parcels are picked each growing season. “No, not really,” Garbay answered, “though some tend to be picked a little earlier each year. But the strategy can change – we adapt with each vintage. For example, in 2006 we had a lot of acid rot, so we had to forget those parcels on good gravelly terroir and go directly to more clayey soils.” It should also be noted that the Sauvignon Blanc tends to kick off the harvest, as it is more susceptible than Sémillon in terms of reaching the crucial rôti stage of botrytization.
In previous conversations, Mayeur emphasized the importance of keeping the vineyard in balance, maximizing the spread of Botrytis cinerea while eschewing sprays or any practices that potentially reduce botrytis infection. To this end, the estate has installed four additional weather monitoring stations in addition to the original station that dates from 1896, in order to keep careful track of temperature, rainfall and humidity. Accurate forecasts help them take more preemptive measures and avoid using pesticides and copper. With respect to the latter, less than 4kg/ha is applied to combat mildew. I broached the subject of biodynamics with Garbay because some winemakers, most notably Bérénice Lurton at Climens, have adopted Steiner’s practices, but Yquem has not. Is it too much of a risk?
“We practice organic viticulture and we will be certified in August 2022,” Garbay told me. “We have never used chemicals and always used farm manure. However, we had to use some pesticides against mildew until 2019, 50% organic and only 50% with chemical pesticides. Now we are only using copper, but you must be vigilant because copper can thicken grape skins and therefore lower the efficiency of botrytis formation. Fortunately, rain tends to wash copper away. In the last four years, we were at the limit [of copper usage] because mildew pressure was so high. Since 2021, we have had biodynamic trials on 20 hectares of vineyard, and we are monitoring the efficacy of the different preparations to see if there is a reaction. To be honest, I don’t really understand the rationale of biodynamics. It seems like a religion.”
It will be fascinating to see whether these trials will alter the vineyard approach, but we will have to wait a few years to find out.
It’s amazing how these grapes will turn into the limpid golden Yquem. This bunch has reached what is called the pourri plein stage of botrytization, where the berries become covered in a downy fur and start to shrivel as water evaporates. This concentrates sugar and provokes biochemical reactions that enhance complexity.
It is impossible to overestimate the complexity of picking perfectly botrytized berries in Sauternes. You can execute fastidious vineyard husbandry throughout the growing season and preside over a state-of-the-art winery, but that is irrelevant if you lack a team of experienced, dedicated pickers willing to make several tries through the vines, laboriously using their “tweezers” to pluck out the berries affected by Botrytis cinerea. With so much at stake, Yquem unsurprisingly relies on experienced hands, locals available at short notice throughout the two months when harvest is possible. Around 90% return each year. “Loyalty is strengthened by a respect for tradition,” Mayeur told me, “such as the payment of half a day’s work if the picker arrives at the property and it rains, a meal offered at lunch with a glass of wine, cake at the end of Sunday afternoon, and a real late-harvest banquet and a gift of an old wooden basket confirming that they cut the grapes here and elsewhere.”
Pierre Lurton told me that he focuses on the concentration of botrytized fruit that will impart the necessary freshness. There are two approaches to picking: using technology and scientific analysis to measure the maturity of grapes/botrytis, or simply tasting the grapes and evaluating their flavor. “The level of sugar determines when we start,” Garbay told me; “that is to say, when we have more than 20 degrees potential alcohol and also if there are enough botrytis-affected grapes in the vineyard. We need to have enough grapes to pick through the day. In the morning, we wait until the grapes are totally dry. Sometimes, if we start at 9am, there is dew on the bunches, so we wait until the sun comes out to dry out any moisture. We prefer to harvest in the afternoon as water can dilute concentration.”
Garbay assesses the fruit as it enters reception and gives a gladiatorial thumbs-up or thumbs-down to pickers, instructing them to return to the parcel if she feels the grapes have reached optimal ripeness, or put their secateurs away and wait longer. Usually, only half the crop will be worthy of entering the vat. Of those grapes that make the grade, the variances in sugar and acidity levels will form a palette from which to assemble the balanced blend.
“The idea is to check that every team is doing good work. Depending on which parcel they are working, we know the quality that is expected. We check that there is no bad rot or acid rot. If there’s a problem, then I call the manager of that harvest team. Pickers must select not only which bunch to pick, but which part of the bunch, even picking berry by berry. Sometimes it’s not necessary to have botrytis-affected grapes. Sometimes we want high acidity. We might say we want 20% ripe grapes and 80% botrytized grapes. That decision was always made by Francis Mayeur, but he will retire this year and stay on as a consultant. Lorenzo Pasquini [former oenologist at Château Giscours] is taking over, and his title is Directeur d’Exploitation. His first vintage was 2021, when he worked alongside Francis.”
Picking underway at Yquem.
As anyone who has visited Yquem will know, the team has an invaluable resource: meticulously maintained records of harvest and weather data stretching back to 1896. Readers can access some of this information on Yquem’s official website, although they don’t quite convey the in-depth knowledge presented at the château when you visit – down to daily records of the weather and harvest, data revealing the interrelationship between Mother Nature and harvest, like a couple dancing the tango. To my knowledge, this level of detail is unique.
One aspect of the historical record that intrigues me is the number of passages through the vineyard, which has changed significantly in recent years. [As an aside, I learned from Sauternes expert Bill Blatch that passage refers to the picking, whereas a trie refers to the picking and sorting.] “We do fewer tries in recent years,” Garbay confirmed. “Perhaps that is because of global warming, which can give a massive infection of noble rot. We used to have five or six tries; in 1997 there were seven waves of picking. But nowadays, it is more like three tries. The major difference has been the length of time between ripeness and infection. If skins are thinner, then botrytis infection is quicker.”
I once asked Mayeur which was the most perfect growing season and which was the worst. He chose 2001 and 1992, respectively, the latter having been ruined by six weeks of rain. I asked Garbay the same question. “The most memorable was 2001, because it was incredible how the quality of grapes was high and how well it went. I thought I would never see that kind of growing season again in terms of the purity and intensity of flavor. That turned out not to be true, as we saw it again in 2009. The worst? The 2012 season was dramatic, because I really saw what gray rot is. We threw everything away.” (As is well known, Yquem did not release any wine that year.) “Also, I remember 2002, as it was the last one where the alcohol fermentation was stuck.”
Though she is au fait with all aspects of the winemaking process, Garbay’s official area of responsibility spans the moment the fruit enters reception to bottling. “I think we’re stricter during the blending and selection. The blending is done from the end of January until March. More and more is rejected as we are more selective, though in 2021 we will remove less than usual, maybe 20–30%. We look for purity and elegance, and you can see the changes [from more draconian selection]. We harvest musts at an average of 20% potential alcohol, with some over-concentrated lots up to 25% potential alcohol and others less concentrated, 16–17% potential, to achieve performance gain by heterosis [a biological term for hybrid vigor]. This blend, combining richness and acidity, freshness and texture, fruit and confit, is very important, and it has been refined over 100 years at Château d’Yquem from the vintage reports.”
“At Château d’Yquem, we have a large press capacity,” she continued. “There are four pneumatic presses and three vertical presses that enable us to press all variations of lots according to grape variety and terroir, of course, but also vine age, the trie or richness. This keeps our options open for choosing the best lots, maintaining a sense of diversity. We would never press everything that comes in during an average day if we feel that nuances would be lost. We use a cache fermé, a closed tank, so no nitrogen is necessary. We press up to two bars of pressure for three hours and then at nine bars in vertical presses for at least two hours. If we don’t have enough time, then we will put in a Bucher vertical press for three hours. We only use these if necessary. These presses are very traditional in Sauternes, but the volume is small and you have to get rid of the marc at the end. We mix less-concentrated and over-concentrated grapes so that finally the must is around 21% or 22%, to enhance complexity. I am looking for a synergy between the two types of grapes. Generally, the Sémillon is higher in alcohol than the Sauvignon Blanc. The musts are never sulfured and not racked off.”
“Fermentation is started as quickly as possible by transfer. The first musts begin their alcoholic fermentation in barrel on their own with natural yeasts, and then we use about 5% of these for inoculation of the following musts as they come in [a process known as pied de cuve]. We have a nice indigenous collection of our own wild yeasts, but a yeast that is good in one year is not necessarily optimal for the next one, as they gradually become more adapted.”
“Immediately after the pressing, the must is inoculated with added assimilable nitrogen to help the yeast and thiamine [vitamin B1, which enhances and prolongs the activity of yeast] to ensure a good alcoholic fermentation and low volatile acidity. We control this process better nowadays and volatile acidity levels are lower than 10 or 12 years ago. We monitor the natural end of fermentation very closely using our own analysis laboratory, then apply SO2 to the wines either in barrel on all their lees or in tank after cold treatment, after which they go back into barrel.”
We then discussed the final stage of the winemaking process, the élevage in barrel.
Precious ancient bottles of Yquem securely imprisoned behind bars. The oldest? 1861.
“We use entirely new barrels in a temperature-controlled cellar at 20°C and a maximum of 28°C. We only have four cooperages, Seguin Moreau, Demptos, Saint-Martin and Taransaud, supplying about a quarter each, who have worked with us for over 30 years, though we occasionally try out a different supplier. We employ only French oak with a medium toast. We have always used traditionally sized barrels, but we might trial larger vessels in the future. One time, I tried clay amphorae, but there was too much oxidation. I have also tried the glass jars. But the wood is important to express the noble rot. There is an aromatic match of the lactone in wood and the lactone produced by botrytis. It’s a principle of the perfume industry: when you put two molecules together, you get a third molecule [that enhances aromatic complexity].”
One recent change has been the length of barrel maturation. “We have shortened the aging in barrel so we can preserve more of the fruit,” Garbay told me. “Around 20 years ago, the barrel maturation was 42 months in barrel. Since 2001, we’ve started to decrease it step by step, observing how it went. We did a big trial in 2009 employing one, two and three years of barrel aging and saw that the optimum was two years for preserving fruitiness and good evolution of the palate.”
Since my last article on Yquem, there has been a revision in terms of racking, which used to be carried out once every three months. “We do less racking than before. Now we rack every four or five months, not more than that. So over two years, there are only five rackings, whereas before it could be as many as 14 over 42 months. The third and last racking is made under nitrogen with less oxygen. We do a light fining in tank toward the end of élevage and a light cellulose filtration before bottling.”
In recent years, there has been a change in how the new vintage of Yquem is released onto the market. “From 2011 until 2018, we released the wine in September, two years after the vintage. In 2019 we delayed the release because it’s not good to bottle during harvest and not beneficial to have a set date for bottling. A vintage like 2019 needed more time in barrel, and I want to be free to bottle when the wine is ready. So now the wine matures for two years in barrel and we bottle in December, then we transfer into tank and filter. But we take time to do this.”
Before broaching the wines, I should mention Yquem’s dry white, Y d’Yquem, sometimes shortened to just “Y” (pronounced “ee-grek”, as three vintages are included in this report. I must confess that it is a wine I have not tasted often. It has been sourced from the same vineyard as Yquem since its debut in 1959, and is made from a picking at the end of the harvest from grapes under 15% alcohol and affected by botrytis. Only since 2004 has Y d’Yquem been produced every year. At that time, there was a concurrent change in approach, the blend altered to include early-picked Sauvignon Blanc (in order to impart greater freshness) and Sémillon at an early stage of botrytis, when the skins turn pink. It is now aged in one-third new oak for around 10 months in its own vat room, and production is limited to under 10,000 bottles.
The treasure trove of Yquem in this article spans almost a century. During my June visit, I was shown the cache of ancient bottles imprisoned behind bars. I must be honest: having vicariously read about weekend-long verticals before my time, I got the impression that the château was sitting on a vast library of old bottles. But in fact, for many vintages there are just a small handful that have never been removed from Yquem.
The commonly held notion is that the older the Sauternes, the deeper the colour. However, as anyone who has seen a number of vintages lined up will attest, that is not necessarily true. (If you can’t visit Yquem, just go and look at the rear wall at the Hedonism wine shop in London.) It was actually Michael Broadbent who taught me early in my career that the level of sulfur can alter the depth of colour: the more SO2, the paler the hue. Garbay also explained that the longer the botrytis infection, the deeper the colour because of the oxidation process. So there are other factors apart from age that determine colour of Yquem and, indeed, any Sauternes or botrytized wine.
Before I narrate the vintages, I will direct readers to Yquem’s official website. Unlike many other official château websites that seem reluctant to offer nitty-gritty information, here you can peruse summaries of growing seasons and picking dates back to 1890, and they are fascinating to read. I have transcribed some of this information into individual tasting notes, so that every note should detail picking dates, number of tries through the vineyard and any other relevant information. Also, in this report, I have perversely included years when no Yquem was produced: 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, 1992 and 2012. Why? Apart from being useful for readers, it is intriguing to discover which factors precluded Yquem from releasing wine in those particular years, especially when you consider that this was achieved in maligned seasons such as 1931, 1965 and 1977, often to some degree of success. (As an aside, though officially no 1915 was declared during World War I, one bottle was found by Swiss collector Jürg Richter, who kindly sent me a photo as proof. There is no label, but the cork is embossed and it has a gold capsule. It must have been drunk privately or consumed by workers at the time.)
My palate has had a few memorable encounters with 19th-century Yquem that readers can peruse on the Vinous database. (If anyone wishes to crack open their bottle of the legendary 1847 or the famed “comet” vintage of 1811, do not hesitate to get in touch.) The oldest was an unforgettable 1869. I have added several vintages from the 1920s, including an ancient tasting note of the fabled 1921 Yquem. The wine was amazing, though the oft-recounted backstory is equally interesting. I could not believe that I had never published a tasting note for the 1929 Yquem, which was poured at the end of a fabulous dinner at the marvelous Epure restaurant in Kowloon. This might well be the century’s greatest Sauternes growing season. The astonishing elixir was one of the most intense, or to word it more accurately, penetrating experiences of my career, almost as if the Yquem had been triple-distilled. Perfection? No question. My senses might never recover, but at least I have rectified my oversight and provided a tasting note. My thanks to our host who so generously opened the bottle.
Moving on to the following decade, the 1934 Yquem was the oldest served by Pierre Lurton last June. (It was a blissfully sunny day, with not a cloud in the sky. On such occasions, nothing beats a mature Sauternes.) Unusually, 1934 was a year in which the botrytis just kept coming, so that there were no “waves” of infection. It is a vintage that probably remains in the shadow of the lauded 1937, perhaps unfairly so, as it offers lovely satsuma and barley sugar scents with a light chlorine touch, a tangy palate, and a restrained bitter orange and chlorine-tinged finish. I have included an older tasting note for the 1937 Yquem for comparison purposes, as the bottle was likewise opened at the château. Yes, it is a stupendous Yquem, though I seem to be going against perceived wisdom when I aver that it lacks the pixelation of 1945 or 1989. The 1943 Yquem is a wartime veteran that was being poured by the glass at Noble Rot restaurant. It pinged up on my Instagram feed during lunch with a friend, and so I immediately headed down. Deep in colour, it had a lovely toffee apple and chlorine-scented nose with an odd marzipan scent. Sure, it lacks the finesse of a truly great Yquem, but considering the challenges of war, it deserves a round of applause and continues to drink well.
Moving into the postwar period, I have never tasted the 1947 or 1949 Yquem. The 1950 Yquem is a funny one. This was my own bottle that I intended to open for my mother, as 1950 is her birth year. Rushing to host a charity dinner at Christie’s, I grabbed what I thought was a mature Guiraud, only to discover on the train that I had mistakenly taken my precious 1950 Yquem. This was the year in which hail on June 13 decimated half the crop. But over three tries until October 27, a lovely Sauternes was conjured, with stewed tangerines on the nose and an exotic Turkish delight–tinged palate. Unusually for Yquem, no wine was released in 1951 or 1952 due to hailstorms. The 1955 Yquem was another bottle opened by Pierre Lurton last June, after a bottle opened during a previous visit was corked; second time lucky! After that year’s pendulum-like weather settled down, picking took place from late September until a final trie from October 20. The brilliant 1955 is suffused with tension and complexity and, as I state in my note, might challenge the 1959 for supremacy. Readers should note that a review for the 1959 Yquem is already in the Vinous database; likewise the 1961.
The 1962 Yquem comes from a very respected vintage for Sauternes, though it lies in the shadow of 1967. This was a vintage where the botrytis took a long time coming and did not really kick off until October 15. I have always considered this to be an Yquem that fell a little short of potential, the lateness of the harvest perhaps denying it the complexity and amplitude of the 1967. The 1967 Yquem is a vintage that I have tasted several times before, and to be honest, it has never left me awestruck. However, the bottle served blind alongside the 1893 at Hide restaurant in January 2019 was the best I have encountered. Gorgeous crème brûlée and caramelized pear featured on the Barsac-inspired nose, the palate shimmered with tanginess, and layers of fig and quince appeared on the decadent finish. Fabulous.
In all of Sauternes, and indeed the entirety of Bordeaux, the following years were plagued by challenging seasons. Bottles are rarely seen, though I have dug up some older tasting notes from a remarkable vertical organized in London many years ago that featured a complete run of these vintages. I have included notes for the 1968 and 1973, as well as the reasons why nothing was produced in 1972 and 1974. Of course, the one highlight from this period is the brilliant 1971 Yquem, already in the Vinous database. Then there was a useful comparison of the 1975 and 1976 Yquem at La Trompette. This pair used to be neck-and-neck, though in recent years I find myself drawn more to the Tokaji-tinged 1975. It was interesting to learn that the 1976 was picked over just two tries through the vineyard, and maybe when you juxtapose the two, it now misses the same degree of precision. Unsurprisingly, both surpass the 1977 Yquem, which had to be eked out through a series of what you might call “mini-tries” through the vineyard until November 13. It is not undrinkable, yet it is difficult to find much botrytis here and it feels a little musty.
The following decade was more fecund, though it began inauspiciously with the 1980 Yquem, born of a cool season and a late picking that could not begin until October 20, after which an easterly wind in November finally concentrated the berries. A half-bottle, my last one bought from a small cache a few years ago, suggests that the 1980 should be drunk soon. The 1981 Yquem is better and might be considered a bit of a dark horse, still fresh and showing impressive finesse at four decades old. But the real revelation from this period is the 1982 Yquem. I had drunk this four times previously, and in fact, I was asked to address attendees at an Académie du Vin dinner back in 2012 on this very wine. This example was donated by Bill Blatch for our 1982-themed dinner at Hatched in February 2022, and it was a revelation. Limpid in colour, it had a cut-glass bouquet of quince, saffron and honeysuckle and wondrous tension and freshness on the palate. Where did all that energy come from? Stunning!
Thankfully, unlike the last bottle, this 1955 had no TCA. That said, I find that Sauternes wines generally have less TCA than dry reds.
Good news: Sandrine Garbay dispatched a 1983 Yquem for us to taste together during our meeting. Bad news: It was corked. Fortunately, a friend came to the rescue and opened another, which actually confirmed that, behind the taint, this is a fabulous Yquem offering marmalade, quince and orange rind on the powerful nose, concentrated and dense on the palate with Manuka honey and tinned apricot, and almost Germanic on the finish. The 1984 Yquem was tasted from one of my own half-bottles bought many moons ago; there’s no need to dwell too long on this, as I am not convinced it should have been released. The 1985 Yquem is fascinating because this is the year when an absence of rain (just one day requiring umbrellas between September 15 and November 1) precluded botrytis formation, at least until the very end. For me, it comes across more like a sweet wine than a Sauternes; a not unpleasurable wine, balanced and tangy, though bereft of complexity – like a joke without a punchline. Interestingly, Pierre Lurton opened a 1985 Y de Yquem. I found it arresting, a wine that I both hated and loved. Displaying green olives and, oddly, Padrón peppers on the nose, it had a very harsh oxidative note that I found both distracting and compelling. The palate was nutty, to the point where you might think it faulty, but that’s just how the wine is: a Jekyll and Hyde. The 1986 Yquem is often overshadowed by the subsequent trilogy, yet it is a wonderful Yquem thanks to the late October rain and Indian summer that November. My last bottle, tasted in Bordeaux, had an effervescent bouquet of almond, quince and saffron, the palate displaying wonderful bite and tension. Don’t ignore this wine. But you can overlook the 1987 Yquem if you wish; it’s not a bad vintage, but conditions during harvest meant the wrong kind of rot, and it seems to be going nowhere.
The decade finished on a high note with the 1988, 1989 and 1990 triumvirate. The 1988 Yquem was a vintage that I had not tasted for a while, but it appeared at a Roumier 1988 dinner at Noizé. It had the hubris to almost steal the show from Christophe Roumier’s wines! The electrifying nose offered quince, wax resin and orange blossom, just a light adhesive scent emerging with age. The palate was endowed with more precision and tension than I remember, featuring flavors of clementine and caramelized pear. This was the best example that I had encountered. My pick of the three is the 1989 Yquem, which has even more precision than the 1988 but harnessed with the intensity of the 1990, which I have not revisited since the review already in the Vinous database.
The 1991 Yquem is an off-vintage that I had tasted once before. Many Sauternes estates were denied producing any wine because of the frosts on April 21, though Yquem’s elevated position meant that some parcels were spared. It is a light style of Yquem, reminiscent of the 1991 Doisy-Daëne, with a simple but pleasurable pineapple-tinged finish. Nothing was released the following year because only the young vines produced fruit with the prerequisite 20% potential alcohol and the paltry few barrels were not good enough. I have never encountered the 1993 or 1994. I have a sentimental attachment to the 1995 Yquem, as it was the first I remember tasting on my maiden visit to the château in 1997. A bottle opened in 2020 demonstrated a Barsac-like nose of tangerine and saffron, waxy notes emerging with time. This is an unctuous and precocious Yquem, though maybe it needs a little more precision on the finish. The 1997 Yquem comes from a season that witnessed the earliest-ever flowering (May 5) and an early picking that began on September 4, though botrytis failed to develop, necessitating seven tries through the vineyard over 32 days of picking that lasted until November 4. This bottle, brought by Sandrine Garbay to the London tasting, felt fully mature and perhaps just lacked the precision of the previous vintage, though it displayed less of the adhesive trait that I noticed on previous bottles. The palate is underpinned by 5g/L acidity and delivers plenty of power on the finish.
The 2000 Yquem comes from a very challenging season for the entire appellation. After a promising spell, rain during October ruined around 80% of the crop. The result is a rather one-dimensional Yquem, fresh and balanced, but devoid of personality and complexity. The 2001 Yquem has already been reviewed by yours truly and I don’t think any more needs to be added. My only question pertaining to the 2001 is whether the 2009 might ultimately surpass it; time will tell. The 2002 Yquem has always struggled in the shadow of 2001, though I appreciate the fragrant scents of gâteau basque and melted candle wax, and the palate underpinned by racy acidity, if slightly tapered toward the finish. The 2003 Yquem is another vintage that I tasted with Sandrine Garbay in London. I was quite surprised by its pale hue, which is possibly, as I now know, due to the rapid onset of botrytis that year (the fruit was harvested in a single trie between September 17 and 26). Opulent and rich on the nose, it just lacks some complexity, though the palate is more expressive, featuring lovely orange rind and mandarin notes on the unctuous finish. The 2005 Yquem is a formidable wine. I have tasted this three or four times at the property, though this bottle came from one bought on release and poured (yet again) at the conclusion of a Burgundy dinner. It displays impressive intensity on the nose, its focus and precision deserving a hearty round of applause. The palate is beautifully balanced and reveals a disarming sense of harmony and a word I have used before: completeness. I would give it more time in bottle. The 2006 Yquem, which I tasted at Rick Stein’s restaurant in Barnes, seated next to the chef himself, is an overlooked vintage. Quite taut and precise on the nose, it unfurls marvelously in the glass, imbued with a countervailing piquancy that gives it perhaps even more edge than the previous vintage. For vintages between 2007 and 2010, I refer to incumbent recent reviews on the Vinous website.
The most recent vintages, from 2011 to 2018, were all tasted at the château during my visit last June, omitting the 2012, which was declassified. I will let the reviews speak for themselves. Highlights include a stunning showing of the 2014 Yquem, which is delineated and precise on its saffron-tinged bouquet, energetic on the palate and, in my opinion, surpasses the 2015 Yquem, displaying more weight if perhaps less nervosité. I also prefer the 2017 Yquem over the 2018, again, principally because the 2017 is endowed with more tension and slightly more complexity on the nose, and a sense of control on the pixelated finish. In fact, I hold up the 2017 as one of the château’s great modern-day creations alongside the 2019 Yquem, which readers will find in my 2019 Bordeaux report.
Congratulations on reaching the end of this article. As stated in my introduction, a château with the status of Yquem deserves the full monty, no corners cut, and it would have been remiss of me to not pass on Garbay’s enlightening insights. Writing this piece, I understood how, like any Sauternes, Yquem plays a game of chance with Nature every season. Not only does the growing season have to deliver grapes with sufficient concentration, but they depend upon a “conjugation of quirks” to trigger botrytization. The risks are always great. Yet Yquem’s geographic and geological uniqueness, together with its historical know-how and praxis, lower the odds and raise the heights of what is achievable. What might defeat a noble Sauternes does not necessarily defeat Yquem (though as we have seen, there are still seasons when obstacles cannot be overcome).
While Yquem is officially in a league of its own, that superiority is maintained not by a decision made in 1855, but in a glass of the latest vintage; the team at Yquem must strive to deliver each and every year. Still, in my mind, if one takes the long view over decades, there is no question that Yquem is unrivaled, unequaled.
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