Can you imagine Chateau d’Yquem 2011 for breakfast? Really! Croissant and coffee is for wimps – we tasted this sublime ‘Sauternes Masterpiece’ having commenced our morning with a tour of this most beautiful estate, once owned by King Henry I.Standing at one of the highest points in Sauternes under the chestnut tree planted by French soldiers hospitalised at the chateau during WW2, we looked over the precisely planted vines of Chateau d’Yquem. You can find oyster shells in the soil here, a result of the low-lying Sauternes land having been submerged by sea millennia-ago. This marine-enriched earth nurtures the vines of the highest slopes in Sauternes making this unique terroir. The wines of Yquem are recognised as the finest whites in Bordeaux, and a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1811 was the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold at £75,000 in July 2011. These wines age extraordinarily well and can last for well over 100 years, continuing to evolve.
The harvest at Yquem is exacting with the attention to detail being focused on the perfect degree of development of botrytis, referred to as noble rot, in the individual grapes, not clusters. The degree of rot will determine the levels of sugar, acidity and alcohol and the complexity of this is what makes Yquem great. Getting this delicate balance right is a skill that has passed down through generations of vineyard workers under the skilled eye of the most talented wine-makers through the ages. In 1785, Francoise Josephine de Sauvage d’Yquem, widow of Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces, took control of the estate. She perfected the harvest method of picking individual grapes by several passes through the vines over weeks having identified those as having reached the optimum stage of noble rot. Today there are fifty Yquem vineyard workers, of which notably 30 are women who tend the vines all year round and are each responsible for their own section of vines. These women of the vines are generational with grandmothers, mothers and daughters involved in the creation of Sauternes’ premier wine. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that the wine-maker at Yquem is also a woman and Sandrine Gambay has excelled to such an extent that she has overseen the production of one of the estate’s finest vintages in 2001, thought to be the best vintage in a hundred years. Another great is 2003 and the team believes that 2011 holds great promise too.
This unparalleled Sauternes heritage of exacting standards, means that a vintage will not be produced if the quality of the harvest is not good enough, as was the case in 2012. This has meant that Yquem has earned the exalted reputation as the greatest Sauternes vineyard and producer of the finest white wines ever made. When we were taken to the cellars we noted the empty racks where the 2012 oak barrels would have been stored – this a poignant and stark visualisation of the effect of such high standards. Protecting this reputation has been key and Yquem was one of the first major estates to fight fraud by introducing a unique watermark on their label. Anne explained that another responsibility of the Yquem women is to check every bottle of wine individually by hand with a magnifying glass. Any bottles found with any imperfection are all disposed of. This identifying mark allows them to track any quality issues in the vineyard as the location of the original vine is also understood through this mark providing extraordinary information on the wine production.
That brings us on to the 2014 harvest and having arrived at the tasting room we were joined by Valerie Lailheugue. She advised us that the Yquem team were delighted. September had brought summer warmth to Bordeaux after a disappointing August and they too feel 2014 is a promising vintage. Finally, and most importantly, back to breakfast – 2011, in the life of Yquem is still very young and yet it has the potential to be a great vintage. The delicate and yet quiet sophistication of this beautiful wine took our breath away. Truly there could not be a more perfect way to commence the day!