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Many people consider Château d'Yquem to be the finest sweet wine in the world and Bordeaux’s single greatest wine, indeed it is the only wine in France to hold the Premier Cru Supérieur (Great First Growth) designation in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. An uncompromising quest for quality is what singles this sweet white wine out – a standard meticulously preserved throughout the estate’s history.
The vineyard of Château d’Yquem is situated on the highest point in the Sauternes region, in the south-west of France, between the villages of Sauternes and Fargues, some 15 miles(24km) south of the city of Bordeaux and about 100 miles (161km) north of the Spanish border.
Wines from Château d'Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness. Its success stems largely from the site's susceptibility to attack by 'noble rot' (Botrytis cinerea). The wine's sweetness is balanced by a relatively high acidity.
Another characteristic for which Château d'Yquem wines are known is their longevity. With proper care, a bottle will keep for a century or more.
The château was built and added to in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Sauvage d’Yquem family who acquired the estate in 1592.
In 1785, Joséphine d'Yquem married Comte Louis Amédée de Lur Saluces and the Château became a Lur-Saluces family property.
It was under this new ownership that the vineyard flourished. Widowed only three years later at a young age, Joséphine d'Yquem transformed the estate into a highly efficient business with an international reputation.
In order to accommodate the subsequent increase in demand, a new cellar was built in 1826. This expansion was followed by a long period of prosperity for the Lur-Saluces family and Château d’Yquem.
In 1999, the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Group acquired a majority interest in the estate after members of the Lur-Saluces family sold their shares.
In 2004, the group appointed Pierre Lurton as manager of the estate, replacing Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces. Lurton quickly made Château d’Yquem available en primeur, rapidly increasing international demand for the wine.
Sauternes In the 1855 Classification only one wine producing Château of Bordeaux (d'Yquem) gained Great First Growth (Premier Cru Supérieur) status.
Bordeaux Ygrec – Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée.
The Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Group
Total: The vineyard has 126 hectares (311acres) in the Sauternes appellation, though only 100 hectares (247 acres) are in production at any time.
In the vineyard, only two grape varieties are cultivated – Sémillon (80%) and Sauvignon Blanc (20%).
Château d’Yquem – First Wine: Sémillon (90%), Sauvignon Blanc (10%).
Ygrec – Sauvignon Blanc (70%), Sémillon (30%)
The topsoil is warm and dry, as a result of its smooth, flat pebbles and coarse gravel. The clay subsoil contains good water reserves with numerous springs on the estate and an extensive network of drainage pipes to prevent water logging.
Around 65 000 cases annually.
Top Vintages Produced
1811, 1834, 1847, 1859, 1929, 1967, 1975, 1986, 1988, 1990, 2001, 2009
Château d’Yquem out-classes all other Sauternes, in terms of purity of style and depth of richness. The unique set of climatic and geological conditions that together form a rare micro-climate is one of the major contributing factors to the complexity of the wine.
The estate’s large size makes it possible to plant 113 hectares of vines across a variety of the Sauternes region’s soil types. This extraordinary variety of growth mediums is a key factor in the complexity and quality of Château d'Yquem. The top-soils are dry that accumulate heat via smooth flat pebbles and coarse gravel, whereas the clay subsoils are fed by numerous local springs, the drainage of which is aided by an extensive network of pipes (over 100km) that were installed in the 19th century.
Grape growing is very traditional, fertilizers and composts are organic and no chemicals are added to the soil.
Harvesting is by hand: the grapes are picked not only in successive tries but also individually to ensure that each grape is picked only when fully botrytised (ie the grape bunches are at their ripest and “rottenest”.)
The Château’s selection process is notoriously severe with only one glass of wine produced per vine. Sometimes, the wines are not considered worthy of the Château d’Yquem name and the vintage will be omitted, as was the case in 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, and 1992.
The grapes are pressed 3 times and the botrytised grapes are fermented in oak but when fermentation stops naturally at 13 to 14°C of alcohol, residual sugar remains, the amount of which determines the sweetness of the vintage. The wine is then stored in oak barrels for maturation.
Typically after a period of three and a half years, an average of 110,000 bottles of Château d'Yquem Sauternes are produced per vintage. The better vintages can simply keep improving with age, for well over 100 years.
In 1959 Château d’Yquem’s dry white wine, Ygrec (French for ‘Y’) was introduced to counter the declining popularity of sweet wines. Increasingly the blend is dominated by Sauvignon Blanc resulting in a distinctive wine that is exceptionally dry but with botrytis on the nose and palate.
- Château d’Yquem – Premier Cru Superieur Classé in 1855.
- Ygrec – Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée.
- Château d’Yquem – First Wine: This tends to be 90% Sémillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc.
- Ygrec – Sauvignon Blanc dominates, usually with 70% of the blend, and Sémillon makes up the remainder.
Château d'Yquem in the news
- In 2006 a 135-year vertical (containing every vintage from 1860 to 2003) was sold by The Antique Wine Company in London for $1.5 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a single lot of wine.
- Also in 2006, Dior and Château d'Yquem together created a skin care product made from the sap of the Yquem vines.
- In May 2010, the 'Liquid Gold Collection' from Château d’Yquem became one of the most expensive lots of wine ever sold in Asia during a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong. This collection of 128 bottles and 40 magnums was the largest collection of Château d’Yquem ever to come to auction.
- In July 2011, an 1811 bottle of Château d’Yquem sold for £75,000 ($117,000) at the Ritz in London to a private collector, Christian Vanneque, to become the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold.
- The 1811 vintage is renowned as the most famous of the ‘Comet vintages’ – years in which an astronomical event has happened before harvest, in this case the Great Comet of 1811.
- Ten barrels of 1811 Yquem were made – about 3,000 bottles – most of it exported to Russia, he added, but there are now only 10 confirmed bottles left in existence.
- Wine expert Peter Lunzer, who invented the concept of the Wine Price Ratio, is tipping that Yquem could even outperform the current favourite wine in China – Lafite.
- Chinese wine buyers have a massive appetite to acquire top quality brands, so given Château d’Yquem’s heritage, and the fact that it has a very limited production he believes it can only get more expensive.
- Sweet Bordeaux wines which were not allowed to be officially imported into China because of their large amounts of natural, residual sugar (when compared to other wines) exceeded the limit set by the Chinese authorities. However, these rules have now been relaxed.
- Lunzer believes that demand for Sauternes will sky-rocket. He expects the price of the good vintages – including 1990, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2007- to double over the next few years and that this wine could challenge the high prices of other fine wines such as Château Lafite.
- 30th October, 2011: The Chinese government has approved the first-ever Chinese investment fund specialising in wine.
- The Dinghong Fund (Dinghong means 'In Red') plans to invest in €110m on wine over a five-year period starting this year. The minimum investment is €1m for a company and €100,000 for an individual. “Many investors are already in the wine business, but by way of this fund, they will obtain a form of security for their purchases, earned by a grouping of purchases via an 'official' fund,” said Philippe Larché, a representative from Bordeaux negociant Vintex & les Vignobles Grégoire.
There is also an educational role to the fund. “We expect to bring each investor to discover the vineyards of Bordeaux, and to set up wine master classes in China, with the participation of owners and winemakers,” Larché said.
“Over one-third of wines to be purchased will supply the cellars of these investors, so the fund is not just about buying and selling grands crus, but also educating customers and introducing them to Bordeaux.”
Address: Château d'Yquem, 33210 Sauternes, France.
Telephone: +33 (0) 5 57 98 07 07
Fax: +33 (0) 5 57 8 07 08
- Lichine, Alexis (1967).Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. London: Cassell & Company Ltd.
- Oliver Gearing - WineInvestment.org
- Decanter.com Château d'Yquem
- The Antique Wine Company: Château d'Yquem (http://www.antique-wine.com)
- Wikipedia: Château d'Yquem
About the author
Philip Day is an early-retired academic in linguistics who has published many articles.
A North-Midlander (The Potteries) by birth, he currently lives close to the Lancashire Pennines which he regularly explores with his Patterdale terrier, Max.
In particular he has a keen interest in European fine wines and good food and will be contributing further articles in the future for Escapement.uk.com.