d’Yquem for Breakfast

Beginning a wintery Friday morning with Château d’Yquem certainly brightens the day, whether it’s the wines or the exclusivity of such an opportunity that does the cheering up. This despite the fact I am one of those rare folks who don’t particularly love Sauternes. As an acid hound and a balance devotee, I prefer the refreshment and lower alcohol of the equally complex and age-worthy Hungarian Tokaji. Preference aside, however, quality stands on its own.

One of the reasons Sauternes as a category doesn’t do it for me is that its quality is not uniform. (Granted, it is hard to manage this in any region.) Still, as such, I’ve tasted too much mediocre Sauternes. Considering all the risks involved in producing Sauternes, I can’t help but occasionally be amazed by this. After all, producers usually wait a long to a very long time to harvest all their grapes and require expensive manual labor to trie(select multiple times) through their vineyards. And, in some years, there’s not much botrytis at all. In the lucky years, only 25 hl/ha can be squeezed out of the grapes harvested. (Mind you, these minuscule yields are due in large part to dehydration, not to the vines' natural production.) What a wee return on such expenses, and this list is the bare minimum of the worries of Sauternes producers! Still, too much of the resulting wine is average or worse – not unlike Sancerre. (Sancerre is a topic for another day.) As a whole, I feel the region has a grandiose reputation that overreaches its average quality.

Now, obviously, d’Yquem isn’t “just any” producer. And, general manager Pierre Lurton and winemaker Sandrine Garbay are no random selection of exceedingly talented professionals Bernard Arnault (once the richest man in France) might hire. Breakfast with d’Yquem, Y (pronounced Ygrec), Pierre and Sandrine? Why, yes. Thank you very much!

Rather than write notes full of my precisions between marzipan, honey, honeysuckle, dried apricot, toasted hazelnut and such, which can be found elsewhere out there, I’m simply noting my overall impression of the four wines we tasted and some interesting facts about the property that might be lesser known.

I Find Interesting 

Château d’Yquem has a smattering of chalk in part of its vineyards, much like Barsac, and overall, its soils are a “mosaic”.
When I do enjoy Sauternes, I often prefer its (slightly) lighter, more floral styles from Barsac. I see little connection between those high-end Barsacs and d’Yquem. Still, Pierre described d’Yquem as being half way between Sauternes and Barsac. In my book, d’Yquem is d’Yquem.

Muscadelle has never been planted at d’Yquem.
I adore the fragrance of Muscadelle, but apparently it is quite prissy. Figures. Sandrine vows it is only good every one in seven years.

Clay gives bitterness to Sémillon, so Sandrine picks it overripe to try to avoid this character.
Sémillon giving bitterness was a new concept to me. Sure, Sémillon’s exceeding acidity in less ripe styles might give an impression of bitterness, but still…. The truly fabulous Wine Grapesbook on page 984 says Sémillon adapts well to clay. Hmm…is it the clay or the grape or the time of harvest or the pressing? A quick survey of a number of Sémillion-producing Australian websites mentioned night picking and destemming to avoid phenolics. Of course, the Aussies are trained to be cautious in that category, whereas the Italians demand some. I will investigate further….

Vintages ending in “2” have been unkind to Château d’Yquem to the extent that since 1950, no wine was produced in many of those years.
Indeed! It’s almost easier to remember the years it wasproduced: 1962, 1982 and 2002. There’s a 20-year stretch between each.

2011 Y d’Yquem
These grapes were harvested in August, three to four weeks earlier than usual. Nonetheless, this wine struck me as just a bit flabby and slightly warm on the finish. I adore old Ygrec, so I do hope this makes old bones.

2009 Sauternes
Pierre mentioned this is one of the most concentrated Sauternes the château has ever turned out.  It is, without question, an exceptional wine. But, as with many over-oaked reds, I asked in my notes, “How could anyone ever drink this?”

2006 Sauternes
Pierre pointed out elements of 1989, 1990, 2001 and 2003 in this wine. Whatever the glories of 2009 hold, for now at least, I’ll take the 2006 for its finesse and harmony.

1996 Sauternes
Suggestions for seafood as well as spicy dishes came from the dais for this wine. First, I wish I knew what seafood preparation had been in mind. So far, I’ve not come up with the right mental combo, but I have no doubt the chef at d’Yquem has! Second, having sat through a long Sauternes-paired-with-spicy-Chinese-dishes lunch at the Masters of Wine Symposiumin Bordeaux in 2010, I simply don’t understand – still – how such foods might work with a wine tasting of saffron, old cheese rind and dried apricot. Whatever…the wine was quite pretty, despite its whack of volatile acidity.