Hey, remember when I started this blog I thumbed my nose at the social media accounts that flaunted their access to the deluxe lifestyle? You know how I promised to “keep it real” about the everyday products that I try and not get too fancy? Yeah, well screw that – I visited Château d’Yquem, suckers!
I was invited by my good friend, Gwennaelle Brieu. When she asked if I’d be interested in joining her for a professional visit, I tried to play it cool, but I had golden unicorns in my eyes. Gwen is in charge of the tours at another iconic estate (Château Figeac, Saint Emilion Premiere Grand Cru Classé B), but she admitted to me later that even she couldn’t help from geeking out. Yquem has only very recently begun giving tours and only to those willing to reach deep into their pockets, so as pro guests, we were honored to be led around the property by a member of the technical team.
Château d’Yquem is mythic. It is the golden unicorn of the fine wine world and considered to be the reigning top dessert wine (with a price-tag to match). Surprisingly polyvalent, thanks to its fresh acidity, it can accompany more than just dessert. Serving it with pork roast and candied peaches can induce euphoria, but the pairing that blew me away – salted popcorn!
So what makes it special? Would you believe me if I told you it has taken me more than a month to write this damn article for the simple fact that it’s impossible to express why people fall all over themselves for this wine?
In my first draft, I started by giving a history of the estate’s ties to the French monarchy (one of the Louis-es, who cares which one?) and how the luxury company LVMH – Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton is now the majority owner, but that only explains the bankroll and doesn’t really have anything to do with the wine itself, now does it?
Next, I attempted to explain how the estate’s geographical situation (atop three rolling hills, between the Garonne River and its tributary, le Ciron) is the perfect placement to encourage heavy morning fog that burns off in the afternoon…
OK. Wait. Timeout. I do have to get a tad technical here, because for the unbaptised, the concept of purposefully choosing rotten grapes may seem bizarre.
After the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes have fully developed, the vignerons of the region open their shutters in the morning hoping to see that dense fog settled into the rows. This will encourage botrytis cinerea to form. That’s a freakin’ fungus,
a spore that attacks individual berries and creates a rotting, semi-permeability in the skins. Yay? Yep. If Bacchus is in a good mood, the temperatures start heating up and that fog burns off and the water inside those moldy grapes can evaporate, leaving a syrupy concentration of sugars and acids that cannot be created any other way.
I tried writing an article about the laborious conditions under which the harvesters pick the bunches individually, by hand. They have to determine if the progression of the rot is perfect. The team at Château d’Yquem makes up to six passes in the 100+ hectares! It requires a delicate touch and an experienced eye, so unlike most chateaux, Yquem employs a permanent team. The selection is so intense that an entire vine will produce only one glass of golden vin liquoreux.
But what happens if the vineyards are not blessed with perfect conditions? Another reason this wine could be considered precious – the wine won’t get made. Period. The entire vintage will be declassified and there will be a hole in the vertical. Tant pis (translation: tough shhizzz). This occured as recently as 2012 when the levels of concentration were deemed insufficient. It could have been a decent year, but it was not perfect, so… no go. It’s not often we see a commercialized, agricultural endeavor write off an enitre crop because it wasn’t up to kingly standards – insurance companies don’t like that.
But if the harvest is validated the wine can be made – or really multiple wines will be made. Each vineyard parcel is kept seperate from the others to preserve the characteristics of each terroir. The juice rests in new, french oak barrels for six to eight months before a pre-blending session takes place to determine qualities of the vintage (read: another hard nosed selection). The chosen barrels then rest an additional 14 months in the underground cave. This makes the wine making process a much longer period than dry whites and reds. It’s different than any of the other appellations in Bordeaux, so maybe that piques our interest too.
So what? All of these vigorous conditions and attention to detail result in what when we talk about the wine itself? Aren’t there other Sauternes properties that produce botrytisized wines?
Yes, several, and a large portion of my cellar has always been dedicated to these. My bank account keeps trying to convince me that buying a six bottle/case selection instead of one bottle of Yquem is a wise investment and that there really isn’t much difference.
But then someone pours me a taste of this royal nectar and I realize I’m kidding myself.
There is no substitute for perfect balance, freshness, and the layer after layer of flavors that resonnate from that glass. The written word – even (24 drafts of) technical tasting notes – cannot communicate what is revealed when that juice rolls around on your tongue. Same way nobody, if they ever get the chance to see one, will be able to describe the majesty of a golden unicorn.