Chateau d’Yquem 1990-2011: Working With Wine Flight 4
I love Sauternes, and also love d’Yquem, so this was exciting stuff. What was probably of more interest was the context offered by d’Yquem cellarmaster Sandrine Garbay (who was on hand) about the laborious vineyard winemaking processes that drive d’Yquem. No wonder it is expensive booze…
For starters, the yields alone are tiny – usually two (usable) bunches per vine. One bunch is picked pre-botrytis for Ygrec, the d’Yquem dry white, while the other is kept back for the grand vin.
A few other points of interest in the vineyard:
- Harvest lasts 2 months and average is 5 passes per row. There is a mix of botrytised and non-botrytised grapes picked.
- At d’Yquem they never harvest when it is raining as they want to avoid ‘slippery skins’.
- On average they use 160 pickers as ‘Sauternes you cannot pick in one go’ according to Sandrine.
- Sandrine also believes that botrytis consumers phenolics, as well as concentrating sugar and acidity.
- Of the recent vintages, Sandrine is a fan of the sometimes maligned 2003, which is very ripe and ‘not light’. By contrast, there is no wine in 2012 due to grey rot – a direct result of too much humidity.
The winemaking tends to follow a familiar format each year. Nitrogen is added to the must to enhance yeast health, with fermentation all natural and kickstarted with a ‘mother ferment’. Interestingly there is limited temperature control, although they believe that the minimum temperature for a healthy ferment is 20C and is allowed up to 28C.
To stop the ferment they use SO2, and malo is avoided to preserve acidity. The wine then spends a minimum of 24 months in new barrels, with each variety fermented separately, the wine pulled out of oak after 9 months and then blended and returned to barrel. Finally, there is a gelatine or benonite fining, followed by a light filter pre-bottling.
Despite such low yields, the production is not insignificant, with 70,000 full botteles, 30,000 half bottles and plenty of larger format bottles (up to 18 litres) produced . Each year 4,000 bottles are kept back and a small volume of special juice back as a ‘second wine’ for staff and the LMVH group. There is some mystery about this juice and it is resolutely ‘not for sale’.
One final point that Sandrine made was that they tried cross-flow filtering, but because of the high sugars they needed to ‘recycle a lot and it’s not good for the wine’.
For interest, the average chemical stats of Sauternes – 14% alc., 70-130gL RS. Yquem is 110-140g/L RS.
For this tasting all bottles were sourced ex-Chateau and with Sandrine on hand to check out bottles, consistency was high. My only gripe was that we went through the vertical at speed. But I’m always behind on top flights like this as I just get excited by the great wines…
Oh and I sadly didn’t get to lineup the ’13 and ’11 wines as it would be an awesome taste-off. Still, they’re both excellent and it was a pleasure to try them both on the same day.
Tasting notes below are as written on the day, with quotes from Sandrine in italics.
Chateau d’Yquem 2011
‘An early vintage. Early flowering, and started very early. A lot of freshness.’
Perfecto! Green yellow straw coloured and the nose is perfect – lemon lime custard aplenty. Interestingly, this seems almost delicate at first, before the oak kicks into gear. It’s bitter, biting, surprisingly acidic, ultra-long, warming and flirts between being too big and ripe but then also delicate. Love the lemon butter finish. This is magnificent and I love seeing the extra fruit here – makes it even more delicious. Sublime wine. 19.2/20, 97/100.
Chateau d’Yquem 2009
‘An exceptional vintage. Really outstanding grapes and outstanding noble rot. Very powerful.’
Golden yellow straw. In a transitional phase methinks, as the fruit is a little more subdued (but less than the ’07). Big flavours, tending towards butterscotch rather than delicate lime. Indeed it feels just a little warm, but also more fruit forward, more golden and even quite table wine-esque. Oak plays a big part here. Transitional, but the length and breadth is pure top end. I marginally prefer the palate with its hints of toffee and lime here compared to the 2007. Love the finish and power, but it’s a bit formidable. The sweetness on the finish makes this delicious. 18.7/20, 95/100+.
Chateau d’Yquem 2005
‘A very good vintage. A little bit different. Less fully botrytised grapes and more juice’.
Still just light straw coloured. Open and quite fruity nose, inviting and ripe. There’s quite a bit of citrus here, more marmalade or orange. The palate is bouncy, juicy, open, approachable. Maybe a fraction warm to finish? A very chunky wine. Again, more table wine pangs. Love how chunky and even slightly jammy. Less bot, clearly. This is very affable and even quite fun, but is it as complex? Lovely wine regardless. Might even have the nudge on the 09 at this point. Certainly feels more complete! 18.8/20, 95/100.
Chateau d’Yquem 2002
‘A cooler vintage in this flight. Balance between acidity and sugar is very interesting. Very late vintage. Very classical with all botrytised grapes’.
Very classical and utterly delightful! This feels like every box is ticked, with that archetypal creme brûlée flavour classic and the acidity feels perfectly balanced. There seems little that you can count against this – maybe too much bot? Really has the toffee popping through the finish. Perfect balance. I’d prefer to see this even older I think, just so it will flesh out more – it’s still quite tight. Perfection, if in a slightly subtle mode. Svelte and timeless. It doesn’t woo like the 05, but the lines here are near perfect, hence the score. 19/20, 96/100.
Chateau d’Yquem 1990
‘Particular as a sunny and warm vintage. Not so much botrytis. Half ripe half botrytis. An older style. Aged for 3 years in barrel’.
Golden yellow tending bright orange with biscuit and toast bottle age. Seems initially less sweet – indeed there’s much of the ’05 in character here, complete with a little aldehyde. Banana, mandarin, preserved lemon. Really concentrated, sweet fruit. Like treacle, but it’s not sweet – just powerful fruit. Another wine that is more table wine than dessert style. Big and powerful finish. High quality and ultra-powerful but I see this as less classic. 18.5/20. 94/100.