End of February, I arranged a tasting in a wine tasting club that I had been looking forward to for a long time, namely Château d’Yquem. Previously, I’ve only had the opportunity to taste Yquems one by one, so I was very curious to taste several vintages against each other. And as you know, if you want a really good tasting, you have to arrange it yourself. 🙂
Château d’Yquem can rightfully be described as the world’s most famous sweet wines, and occupies a very special position in the 1855 Bordeaux classification, by being alone at the level premier cru supérieur. In the Bordeaux appellation Sauternes, where Yquem is located, three levels were used: premier cru superieur (Yquem only), premier cru (today 11 producers) and deuxième cru (15 producers). For the red wines, there was a total of four châteaux that were classified at the top level (of five) in 1855, and since 1973 they are five.
Château d’Yquem had an impressive reputation also before 1855. Thomas Jefferson, later U.S. President and one of the foremost oenophiles of his time, considered Yquem to be the very best of the white wines of Bordeaux. In 1787, when he was adding to his stock of Sauternes, he requested 250 bottles of the 1784 Yquem. Today, an order of 250 bottles of three year old Yquem (2010) from a dealer would set you back some € 140,000 before discount. For a long time, since the 16th century, the property was leased to and later owned by the Sauvage family and later the Lur Saluces family, after the daughter of the last male member of the Sauvage d’Yquem family married Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces in 1785. The last Lur Saluces at Yquem was count Alexandre (born 1934), who succeeded his farther marquis Bertrand after his death in 1968. In 1999, the luxury goods empire LVMH bought Château d’Yquem. If you study labels, you’ll se that the old phrase “Lur Saluces” immediately below the name of the château now (or at least from the 2002 vintage) has been replaced by the phrase “Sauternes”. Alexandre was allowed to stay until he became 70, in 2004, when he was sent into retirement and was replaced by Pierre Lurton. So nowadays corporate winemaking is the game at Yquem. LVMH have however kept the winemaker Sandrine Garbay from the old regime, but have supplemented her with professor and white wine specialist Denis Dubordieu (who runs Château Doisy-Daëne) as a consultant.
When we are talking about history, it might be worth mentioning the myth that claims that grapes affected by noble rot (botrytis) would have started to be used in Sauternes only starting from the excellent vintage 1847. In this version, the Marquis Lur Saluces would have arrived home late from a hunting tour and found his vineyards affected by rot since he had given orders that the harvest should not be initated before he returned. Incidentally, this story bears great similarity to the story of the delayed “Spätlese courier” in Rheingau in 1775. Before this time, Yquem should have been a wine that at most would have been produced from quite ripe grapes not affected by noble rot, which should have made it less sweet (or even dry or off-dry) and less concentrated than later vintages. Or so the myth would have us believe. There are however many reasons to consider this myth false. To begin with, there is evidence that the harvest at Yquem was performed selectively and in several rounds (tries) at least as early as in the beginning of the 19th century, and this method is almost only used for noble sweet wines. A wine book by Bidet from 1759 also characterises the Sauternes wines as doux et liquoreux and that the ambition in the district is to harvest in several turns, and then only extra ripe grapes. A note from 1666 also mentions that the habit in Sauternes and Bommes is to harvest only from around 15 October, which is so late that the grapes should have been overripe and affected by noble rot. It is therefore very likely that the wines were sweet already by the mid 17th century, and that the properties that could afford it progressively uses noble rot-affected grapes in a more systematic way. It does however seem that the work-intensive and therefore expensive selective harvest has been abandoned in Sauternes during periods when the prices have been low, including from 1823. This could be the reason for other claims of the first sweet Sauternes vintage being 1836, which in reality could mean that it was the first generally sweet vintage after 1823. These claims have also often been disproved in tastings of Yquem from early 19th century and earlier, including the legendary 1811 “comet vintage”. The 1811 has been tasted several times during the 20th century also before Hardy Rodenstock started to be active in the exclusive tasting circuit and provided bottles of highly suspect provenance, and therefore before wines of this age offered at auctions ran a substantial risk of being forged.
But back to the present time! We started with two dry white wines, so I had the opportunity to expose both the participants and myself to Château d’Yquem’s dry white wine, Y, which is pronounced Ygrec in French. The wine has been produced since 1959, but not in every vintage. Y consists of approx. 50% rather late-harvested Sémillon, often with some botrytis, and approx. 50% early-harvested Sauvignon Blanc. (The typical composition of Château d’Yquem is about 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc.) The use of a proportion of botrytised grapes in a dry wine, results in this wine often being said to be a little peculiar in its style. It has however gone through a style change in the 2000s, and is today produced in a less oxidative and more “fresh” style than previous. The name was earlier written «Y» on the label, but from the 2011 vintage, the quotation marks have been removed.
I put Y 2008 blind against another dry white 2008 Bordeaux. We voted for best among these two.
Château Carbonnieux Blanc 2008
Péssac-Léognan, grape varieties: 62% Sauvignon Blanc and 38% Sémillon. 13,0% alcohol.
Colour: light yellow
Nose: citrus, yellow apple, some gooseberry and other green notes, initial some synthetic bubbelgum-like aromas, some wool and oak barrel notes.
Palate: citrus, noticeable minerality, some damp straw, very high acidity, spice, grapefruit bitterness in the finish.
Overall impression: young, 88+ p. Received 2 “best” votes.
I suppose it is fair to say that aromas from the Sauvignon Blanc component are rather obvious in this wine, but that some of the Sémillon character also can be found if you know what to look for. It is a rather typical slightly upscale white Bordeaux.
Bordeaux blanc, grape varieties: approx. 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Sémillon. 14,5% alcohol, 4 g/l residual sugar.
Colour: light yellow
Nose: yellow apple, ripe citrus, some marmalade, spice, well integrated oak barrel notes, mineral, white flowers, some honey. Elegant nose that hints at some sweetness.
Palate: ripe citrus, dry but with hints of an off-dry attack, definitely oily, hints of alcoholic fire, high acidity, spicy, long aftertaste.
Overall impression: rather young, 90 p. Received 12 “best” votes.
This wine is slightly odd, and is partially “built” like a Sauternes while showing other aromas. It is definitely a “fatter” or “greasier” creation compared to Carbonnieux. I couldn’t really say that it is particularly similar to Yquem 2008, though, since that one shows definitely more notes in the tropical direction.
We tasted seven wines blind, and voted best and worst among them. Six were different vintages Vi provade sju viner blint. Six of them were different vintages of Château d’Yquem from the period 1983-2008. I had also sneaked in a Château Suduiraut from the same vintage as the oldest Yquem (1983).
Château d’Yquem 2008
Colour: bright yellow
Nose: ripe citrus, marmalade, botrytis, liquorice, spice, discrete flowery notes. Rather powerful nose, young, fruity and almost a little “tropical”, but doesn’t only show primary fruit.
Palate: full-bodied, concentrated, loads of ripe citrus, dried apricot, noticeable spice, liquorice, high acidity. Long and frest aftertaste.
Overall impression: young, but fully drinkable now. 95 p. No votes neither as best or worst.
This wine was a positive surprise for me. I knew it had been scored favourably, but it was sold cheaper (“less expensive” may be a more accurate term) than all other vintages of the 2005-2011 period. Young Yquem is rather different in its aromas than mature Yquem, and there was a clear demarkation between the 2008 and the 1997 in this lineup, where the 1997 showed more similarity to the 1983-1990 vintages than it did to 2008. If one should insist in serving Yquem to fruit or berry desserts (foie gras and blue cheese often provide better pairings with Sauternes), I imagine this could be a good choice with its youthful notes and slightly tropical character.
Château d’Yquem 1997
Colour: light golden yellow
Nose: spicy honey (heather honey?), dried apricot, botrytis, discrete caramel notes, some maramalde, a discrete but not at all disturbing solvent notes, hints of nuts. Emerging notes of maturity with elegance.
Palate: very concentrated, full-bodied, slightly oily, very spicy, dried fruit, caramel, liquorice, a very faint hint of alcoholic fire. Long and spicy aftertaste with dried fruit, caramel and fresh acidity.
Overall impression: this one had it all – maturity and at the same time vigour and elegance – 98 p. Received 4 “best” and 1 “worst” votes, which meant a shared second place.
I hesitated between this one and the 1988 as the best, but then put my vote here, even though I had expected that I would like the 1988 or the 1983 best. This wine received very favourable reviews when it was young, but I have later seen that it has often been scored a little lower for many years. My guess is that it has now started to mature, which is interesting given the wine maker Sandrine Garbay’s opinion that Yquem is good to drink young and at 15 years of age, but that it can be difficult at 10 years. This 10/15 year rule seems to fit well for the 1997!
Château d’Yquem 1990
Colour: golden yellow
Nose: spice notes, herbs, saffron, some solvent, resin and dried fruit, botrytis. More muted than the other Yquem vintages, and less complex.
Palate: concentrated, very spicy, caramel, dried fruit, high acidity, long aftertaste with caramel. The palate matches the other vintages more than the nose does.
Overall impression: based on the palate it is an Yquem should, but the nose doesn’t quite come up in the same class. 94 p. The score is more based on the palate than the nose. Received 0 “best” and 1 “worst” votes.
1990 should perform better than this, since it counts as a top vintage, but there was nothing in the wine’s aromas that indicated a “regular” defect. It should be mentioned that this wine had a cork that was moist all the way through, and showed small signs of leakage. The fill level was excellent, however, so based on this the wine shouldn’t have been affected, but I can’t be sure if it did have an influence.
Château d’Yquem 1989
Colour: deep golden yellow
Nose: solvent, volatile acidity, caramel and dried fruit, some fudge, noticeable spice, some flower. On top of this unfortunately a discrete TCA/cork defect note, not too obvious but it is there. In total, this makes the wine less complex than the best.
Palate: spice, caramel, dried fruit including apricot, high acidity, and an odd taste component which must come from the TCA/defect. Rather long aftertaste with some bitterness.
Overall impression: unfortunately affected by the cork at the level of a “sneaky defect”, but has a lot of the character of a great wine. On balance – 91 p? Received 1 “best” and 4 “worst” votes.
When I opened this bottle, the cork broke somewhere in the middle, and I could then detect a faint whiff of damp cardboard. Unfortunately, expensive wines are not immune from cork defects. I am actually relieved that that the cork defect wasn’t worse when I could detect it already on the cork, because in my opinion the wine was affected but drinkable. I therefore kept it in the tasting and voting, and it only qualified as the second worst when evaluated blind. Some tasters found it strongly corked and some even questioned if it was corked at all, and suggested some milder form of defect. So my opinion – corked, but not in too strong a way – was somewhere in the middle. To use a slightly stupid phrase, it seemed like there was a really good wine under the defect, one that could have competed with the best in this lineup, if it hadn’t been tainted by that damed piece of bark. Dear LVMH, I WANT SCREWCAPS ON MY YQUEM BOTTLES!!! And I’m willing so say “s’il vous plait” if that helps.
Château d’Yquem 1988
Colour: rather deep golden yellow
Nose: flowery, honey, elegant, spice, caramel, ripe citrus, herbs, liquorice, complex and mature nose. Developed in the glass.
Palate: large concentration, dried apricot, saffron, caramel and fudge, high acidity, noticeably spicy but with milder spice notes than several of the other vintages, flowers. Enormously long aftertaste with spice and dried fruit.
Overall impression: mild and elegant but still with enormous power and balance. Could develop more, 97 p. Recieved 4 “best” and 1 “worst” votes, which meant a shared second place.
I hesistated between this wine and the 1997 as best. Definitely a wine which will have long life, but then 1988 is supposed to be the most acid-driven of the excellent trio 1988-1989-1990.
Château Suduiraut 1983
Colour: golden yellow
Nose: some petrol notes, yellow winter apples, spice, some botrytis, liquorice. A bit of an “old nose”.
Palate: dried fruit, spice, botrytis, rather high acidity, some bitterness, caramel, a bit of alcoholic fire.
Overall impression: came across as a little old, and wasn’t as concentrated as the Yquems. 86 p. Received 0 “best” and 7 “worst” votes, and therefore voted the worst wine.
There was an enormous difference in concentration between this wine and the Yquems. In general, Suduiraut is a very good Sauternes, although their average quality has probably improved since this wine was made. Not even against an Yquem with a faint cork taint did it stand a chance! It is possible that the impressive surroundings led to this wine being rated lower than otherwise.
Château d’Yquem 1983
Colour: rather deep golden yellow
Nose: some solvent, noticeable spice, liquorice, honey, some caramel. Initially a discrete nose that developed in the glass.
Palate: concentrated, caramel and dried apricot, sweetest in the attack, rather high acidity, noticeable spice. Spicy aftertaste.
Overall impression: a fully mature powerhouse that isn’t quite as high in acidity as most other vintages, 96 p. Received 5 “best” and 0 “worst” votes, and therefore voted the best wine of the tasting.
A very impressive wine, but I still prefer vintages where the acidity is a bit more present such as the 1988. The 1983 has a history of having previously been voted the wine of the year in AuZone, the wine tasting club where I held this tasting, and as of this tasting it is the oldest Yquem I’ve tasted.
Despite a (mild) cork taint and a somewhat underachieving bottle – although I scored it 94 despite being somewhat frugal with 90+ scores – it was a very instructing and rewarding tasting. It was quite pleasing to line up the four best wines at 98-97-96-95 points in the order I felt that they performed this day. The contrast in concentration against the “simpler” reference wine (a well-renowned premier cru…) was very striking. I also thought that the profile of the wines supported Sandrine Garbay’s statements regarding the age at which Yquem can be enjoyed – young or at 15+. Her opinion somewhat contrasts that of traditional Yquem collectors, who usually think that Yquem should be cellared much further. When our Swedish Yquem collector Nils Stormby (1929-2010) sold most of his collection in 2007 via Zachy’s in New York, he mentioned the 1967 vintage, then 40 years old, as the youngest drinkable vintage. He also recommended a number of other vintages back to pre-World War II years. Considering that older top vintages are almost absurdly expensive and difficult to get hold of, it is good to know that those “just very expensive” 15-30 year old vintages also provide truly great drinking experiences. It might be worth pointing out that my tasting didn’t feature any weka vintages from the early 1990s and earlier, and the lowest level seems to be much higher from the mid-1990s and later. I don’t think that older, weak vintages of Yquem are worth their auction prices if you’re looking for drinking pleasure. Then you should probably be looking at “second best” vintages from the 1990s, such as 1995, 1996 and possibly 1998 and 1999.
Finally two video clips where BK Wine interviews Yquem’s winemaker Sandrine Garbay, although I must warn those who get motion sickness that the image is somewhat shaky:
I can also recommend Château d’Yquem’s blog mYquem.
Swedish version of the post here.