Chateau D’Yquem: Greatest Wine in the World?

In the series on the 1855 Classification of the First Growths, I spoke exclusively about red wines.  In that same year, however, the sweet dessert wines from the Bordeaux communes of Barsac and Sauternes were also classified.  All of the dessert wines listed were rated as either premier cru (first growth) or second growth status.  That is, all but Yquem which was rated Premier Cru Superieur (First Great Growth), a higher rating even than any red wine achieved in their 1855 Classification.  Yquem is quite possibly the greatest wine made anywhere and has a history dating back four hundred years!  While every wine region has its stars, there is probably no other winery that so dominates the quality of a region and has such as a lofty reputation as Chateau Yquem.

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What makes these wines so special is that they develop a rot called botrytis cinera also known as Noble Rot.  When certain grapes are attacked they get moldy which, in a wonderful twist of fate, causes the grapes to lose much of their moisture, concentrating the flavors.  The resulting grapes look like moldy shriveled raisins that produce a sweet nectar.

Long before grape vines were planted, the property where Yquem sits was owned by Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine.  When she married Prince Louis Capet (the future King Louis VII) in 1137, the property became part of France.  Unfortunately, the marriage was annulled due to adultery.  Eleanor re-married Henri Pantagenet (the future King Henry II of England) and the property reverted to English control where it remained until 1453 when at the end of the Hundred Years War, it was ceded to France. 

Chateau Yquem was established in 1593 when Jaques de Sauvage exchanged properties with the French Monarchy to obtain Yquem.  Under his family’s ownership, the Chateau was built replacing a castle that had sat on the site.  A chapel was added in the 16th century.  The north wing was added in the 17th century which contains the main reception room.  In 1785, Francoise Josephine de Sauvage married Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces (godson of Louis XV).  Despite the death of Lur Saluces shortly thereafter in 1788, the property thrived as a wine estate under his wife.

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Thomas Jefferson visited the estate proclaiming it France’s best white wine.  In 1784, he ordered 250 bottles for his own cellar.  Other notables who have waxed poetically about Yquem include Alexandre Dumas, Marcel Proust and Jules Verne.  It is likely that the wine they all enjoyed was far different from the wines of today.  The extent to which noble rot affected the grapes was left purely to the chance of nature, which meant it existed in some vintage (to a varying degree) and not at all in others.  One vintage that was affected was 1811, called the Year of the Comet as Haley’s Comet made an appearance that year.  That vintage was one of the most successful efforts at Yquem and probably is still drinking well today! 

The property remained in the Lur Saluces family until quite recently.  No small feat making it thru the French Revolution, Louis XVI and Napoleon.  In 1968, Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces took over the day-to-day operations.  At that time, he was a 7% owner and the family still controlled the Estate.  Under his leadership, production was increased as well as a renewed commitment to quality.  The Estate was renovated and modernized.  In 1996, family squabbles resulted in the sale of a majority of the shares in Yquem to the LVMH (Louis Vuitton – Moet Hennessy) group of France.  They bought 55% of Yquem for $100 million.  Alexandre de Lur Saluces was still kept as the manager of the Estate.  In 2004, Lur Saluces either retired or was forced out depending on whom one believes and replaced by Pierre Lurton.  Lurton was a respected name in Bordeaux who ran Cheval Blanc, one of the great wine estates in St. Emilion. 

One advantage Lur Saluces enjoyed as owner was that he could fanatically control quality, even at the expense of the bottom line.  For instance, entire batches were pulled if they did not meet the vintage standards or on rare occasions, an entire vintage may not have been released if it did not meet the Yquem standards.  The last vintage not released was 1992.  Also, the wines were released quite late as Lur Saluces did not want to release the wines until they were ready to be consumed.  Neither of these practices were suited to the LVMH philosophy of watching the bottom line.  Lurton released the 1999 Yquem almost immediately upon taking control.  Soon on its heels was the 2001 Yquem which, to the thrill of everyone, may be the best Yquem ever!