To drive up the long road leading to Château d’Yquem in late Summer, past row after row of verdant vines which are heavy with grapes, one slowly develops the impression of rising onto another plane. Upon finally arriving at the fairytale-like castle, with its numerous towers and great gates, you notice that the breeze carries the intoxicating aroma of fresh-cut lavender from the nearby gardens. It then becomes clear that Yquem was indeed built precisely upon the region’s culminating point.
The castle, with its salons featuring gilded chandeliers and 17th century mural paintings depicting colourful scenes of noble life, affords panoramic views over the valley of Sauternes, the viticultural region situated 65km south of Bordeaux which is renowned for its sweet wines.
Yquem is, quite literally, in a class of its own. In the 1855 Classification, which ranked the best wines of the Bordeaux region, Château d’Yquem received a rating higher than any other wine, red or white: Premier Cru Superieur.
Yquem wine boasts an almost preternatural ability to age – writer Michael Broadbent tasted a 1784 Yquem in 1985, and was astonished to find it still “perfect in any sense: colour, bouquet and taste.” A bottle of the celebrated 1811 ‘comet’ vintage, described as a 100 point wine by modern critics like Robert Parker, was purchased by a private collector in 2011 for £75,000 ($117,000), making it the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold. Probably no other estate in France so utterly dominates its region in quality and reputation as Château d’Yquem.
Tradition and Change
Yet despite its aura of timelessness and tranquillity, Château d’Yquem is a place in constant motion, where today, as for centuries, men and women toil in pursuit of perfection, bringing their accumulated experience and savoir faire to bear in a microclimate where a mysterious fungus named Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, reigns like an elusive faerie whose blessing must be pursued anew, year after year.
Moreover, the past decade has seen a seismic shift take place at Château d’Yquem. Since 1593, the same family had continuously managed the estate, but as of 1999, LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, became the majority shareholder in Château d’Yquem. When Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces retired as estate manager on May 17 2004, it was the end of an era.
The Comte, like his ancestors, had been famous for their unyielding standards of excellence – three times he rejected an entire vintage when he judged the year’s wine unworthy of the Yquem label. In the wake of his departure, many in the wine world feared the venerable estate could only fade.
“It’s clear there was something heart-wrenching at first about seeing the LVMH machine arrive at Yquem, a Château which had been run for generations by the same family,” says Pierre Berot, who manages one of the largest collections of great vintages in the world, as wine director of the historic Paris restaurant Taillevent and the Caves Taillevent wine shops. “We all watched the handover take place, and obviously were worried – we didn’t know what to expect.”
A new generation would now lead Château d’Yquem, including Pierre Lurton – already managing director of a prestigious estate, the first growth Château Cheval Blanc – technical director Francis Mayeur and the young cellar master, Sandrine Garbay, the latter two having been maintained in their positions after the LVMH takeover.
“The most difficult thing for me was to step into the skin of the manager of Yquem,” Lurton confided, over lunch at the château. “I needed to have a certain authority, while also showing respect for what preceded me, and it wasn’t easy at the beginning. The same family had managed this vineyard for 400 years, and here I show up, some stranger—and I must admit I hadn’t much experience making Sauternes!”
Neither initially did Garbay, who earned a PhD in oenology and joined Yquem immediately following her studies in 1994, working three years under former cellar master Guy Latrille before landing the job.
“In two years of oenological studies there are only 10 hours on sweet wines and noble rot,” she recalls. “So when I arrived here I still had everything to learn. Guy Latrille had worked 45 years at Yquem… he transmitted to me this empirical experience, everything he’d learned through this parade of vintages. It was essential, because in a place like Yquem, the past is capital – it must never be forgotten.”
Such is the challenge for Lurton, Mayeur and Garbay as they now write a new chapter in Château d’Yquem’s history. They’ve had to walk a fine line, ensuring that centuries-old traditions are maintained, while dusting off Yquem’s image and making the changes which are necessary to ensure that the grande dame of the wine world remains in tune with her time, and doesn’t become more dowdy than dignified.
Spirit of Openness
Lurton began by widening his circle of brokers and merchants, to reach a new clientele for Yquem around the world. Although the tradition at Yquem was to never sell en primeur, Lurton began organising future sales of vintages, held before bottling, while the wine is still in its 30-month barrel-aging period. The move proved controversial, but doubtless helped Lurton to bolster Yquem’s treasury, as did his release of the 1999
vintage at a strategically low price, and the 2001 –the first truly great vintage of the 21st century – at a significantly higher one. The wine sold well, thanks in part to Yquem’s first full-time commercial director, Renaud Ruer, who today travels throughout Asia and beyond, courting burgeoning markets.
Next, Lurton sought to change Yquem’s rather unapproachable image. “I’ve tried to bring a spirit of openness to the outside,” he says. He saw the
château thoroughly restored, with new second-floor bedrooms created to allow for hosting guests of honour. Meanwhile, Yquem has begun welcoming hundreds of members of the public during annual open house initiatives. Lurton also hired Yquem’s first ‘community manager’ in April 2010, to create “a more direct, more modern relationship with our clientele”. This led to the launch of a ‘mYquem’ blog, Twitter account and Facebook page – with 15,000 fans and counting.
Meanwhile, in the winery, Garbay and Lurton have worked to change the common belief that drinking Yquem young is sacrilege – a notion which has prevented many from ever actually tasting it. Subtle improvements, including a slightly shorter barrel aging period, the introduction of racking and bottling under nitrogen and reduced sulfite doses, have all helped to accentuate the primary early years’ aromas of fresh fruit and vanilla which are rarely experienced by oenophiles who are only familiar with aged Yquem.
Also, at a time when many Sauternes producers are suffering from the consumer trend toward drier whites, Garbay has launched a new generation of Ygrec, Yquem’s dry white, first created in 1959. Since 2000, some 10,000 bottles of Ygrec – which boasts a rich bouquet evocative of a sweet Sauternes but is surprisingly dry and fresh in the mouth – have been produced per year.
What hasn’t changed, though, may be even more important. Whereas most big estates contract vineyard work out to large companies, all of the meticulous management at Château d’Yquem is undertaken by 35 full-time employees, many of whom live in one of the 22 lodgings on site. They include men like Christophe Cabanieu, who represents the sixth generation of his family to work at Yquem. Cabanieu assists Garbay in winemaking throughout the year and prunes in the vineyard during the Winter, using techniques taught to him by his uncle and father. Individual parcels are cared for by the same worker all year, with each vine in the 113-hectare vineyard visited around 50 times per season.
“They are arguably the most pampered vines in the world,” says Garbay. “This way of managing a property, maintaining an on-site work force, is not at all modern,” says Garbay. “And we are always afraid that we are going to be criticized for being slightly paternalist, or for not using external companies just because it would be less expensive. It’s what makes us strong… but it also makes us fragile, because if our policy were to change, the whole system could fall apart”.
The Noblest Rot
Yquem’s staff lead 140 pickers through the Autumn harvest, when mists descend on the vineyards from evening to late morning, produced by the cooler Ciron river emptying into the warmer Garonne, just north of Yquem. This humidity promotes the development of Botrytis cinerea, which attacks and permeates the grapes’ skins, causing the juices to evaporate and sugars to concentrate far beyond normal levels. For weeks, harvesters repeatedly scour the vineyards, up to 10 times, searching for the most perfectly botrytised grapes, which are so desiccated that they will yield just 7-9 hectoliters of wine per hectare – about one glass of Château d’Yquem per vine. All of which explains Yquem’s considerable price tag.
“There is a desire to do good, to sublimate, to go beyond our limits, that this place inspires,” says Lurton. “What you have in the glass, is at once the direct translation of this magnificent ecosystem, the climatology, landscape, and above all – I’d say – the ardour, audacity, and humility of the people who work here. Fundamentally, it’s this human dimension which makes Château d’Yquem so sublime.”
That sentiment, supported by LVMH’s willingness to conserve the entire vineyard staff and Yquem’s numerous excellent vintages since 2004, has helped many in the wine world to reconcile themselves to the notion that a corporate behemoth could be owner of the greatest sweet wine on Earth. However, for Pierre Berot of Taillevent, one decision made last year finally convinced him of Yquem’s future under LVMH.
“Why was Alexandre de Lur Saluces so respected?” Berot reasons, “Because throughout his era, he created Yquems that were completement fou… And yet he also had the strength to decide, some years, that the wine wasn’t good enough, and to not release any… and I wasn’t sure LVMH was going to be capable of that.” Last year, following a difficult harvest plagued by late season rains, Lurton and Garbay informed LVMH that the 2012 wine didn’t merit the Yquem name. They sold it off, anonymously, as bulk wine. For Berot, it was the sign that Yquem’s future is sound: “I said, ‘chapeau’. Hats off.”
A winery whose bottom line isn’t always measured in profit, could that really be what LVMH bought for $100 million? “Bernard Arnault has plenty of beautiful things in his portfolio, but Yquem makes all of LVMH sparkle,” says Berot. “Yquem goes beyond the realm of wine, it’s part of our culture. It’s a jewel, a work of art, it’s like liquid gold to behold, it’s a part of French heritage, and really, that of the world.”
1784: A Presidential Imperative
One might say that Château d’Yquem’s legend began with the 1784 vintage, a wine which completely blindsided an American connoisseur of that era named Thomas Jefferson.
In 1788, during his tenure as the American Minister to France, the future President raved about Yquem in a letter to the US Consul in Bordeaux: “This proves a most excellent wine, and seems to have hit the palate of the Americans more than any wine I have ever seen in France.”
On September 6 1790, Jefferson addressed a letter to the Comte de Lur Saluces at Yquem: “The white wine of Sauterne of your cru, that you have been kind enough to send to me in Paris in early 1788, has been so well accepted by Americans who know good wines that I am sure that now that I am back in the United States my countrymen here will admire them. I persuaded our President, General Washington, to try a sample. He would like for you to send him thirty dozen, sir, and for myself I would like to have ten dozen.”
Joséphine, The Lady of Yquem
Thomas Jefferson’s letter of 1790 was not opened by Comte Louis Amédee de Lur Saluces, but rather by Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem, who was forced to take up the reins of the estate following the death of her husband in 1788, after just three years of marriage.
The Countess proved to be one of the most talented managers in Yquem’s history. She not only held onto the estate despite the Revolution and two prison stays, but later she also made fundamental investments and reforms which helped consolidate Yquem’s status of greatness.
The essential practice of tries successives (multiple passes) during harvest, to collect the grapes at optimum maturity, was perfected under Joséphine and, in the early 19th century, she had an audacious new wine cellar built. She oversaw multiple mythic vintages – from the 1811 comet vintage to the unparalleled 1847, a wine which smashed every record when, in 1859, the Grand Duke Constantine, brother of the Russian Tsar, paid 20,000 Gold Francs for one 900-litre barrel of it.
When she died in 1851, Joséphine left an internationally- renowned winery to her grandson, Romain-Bertrand de Lur Saluces. The 1855 classification of Premier Grand Cru Superieur was all but an acknowledgment of her major achievements.
How to Visit the Château d’Yquem
? From Monday to Saturday, you can walk the estate and view the Château from outside without an appointment (they are generally only for wine professionals).
? For driving directions, visit www.yquem.fr under ‘About Yquem’ – ‘Accessing the Domain’.
? Guided Tour with l’Office de Tourisme à Langon
Tel: +33 5 56 63 68 00 Email: [email protected] sauternes-graves.com
Example tour: Sauternes Prestige Tour. Itinerary: Visit Château d’Yquem and the ‘First Cru Classé’ Château Climens in Barsac, plus a gastronomic lunch at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Claude Darroze Price per person: €150 (with transport from Langon) €160 (with transport from Bordeaux)
Originally published in the December 2013- January 2014 issue of France Today