Wine Legends of 2011: Château d’Yquem 1921

  • Friday 16 December 2011

Every month in the magazine we celebrate a different bottle of wine that we believe should be recognised as a 'wine legend', this year's selected 12 include Dom Perignon 1961, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 and Graham's Vintage Port 1945.

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Château d’Yquem 1921 Sauternes, France

A legend because...

There are many outstanding vintages of this supreme sweet white wine, but none in the 20th century is more celebrated than the 1921. Decanter’s Michael Broadbent, in Vintage Wine, describes 1921 as ‘Unquestionably the greatest [Sauternes] vintage of the 20th century, Yquem in particular being legendary.’ The great richness of the wine reflects the vintage conditions of the year (see below).

Looking back

Yquem had 100ha (hectares) planted in 1921, compared to 113ha today. Back then, only a small amount of wine was bottled at the château, but Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces, owner at the time, was a leading proponent of château bottling as a guarantee of authenticity. From the 1924 vintage, all the wine would be bottled at the château.

The people

During the First World War, Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces served as an officer, in keeping with family tradition, before taking the reins at Yquem, aged 30. He presided over the château for more than 50 years until his death in 1968, when he was succeeded by his nephew Alexandre de Lur Saluces. Today the château is owned by LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton); main shareholders since 1999, the group appointed Pierre Lurton as managing director in 2004. Just after taking over, Lurton revealed in a Decanter masterclass that 1921 is his favourite Yquem vintage.

The vintage

1921 was the driest of 75 vintages on record, and the hottest since 1893. The unusual heat and early autumn made it difficult for red Bordeaux but perfect for Sauternes. For the first time since 1893, picking began as early as the first half of September, on the 13th. The harvest lasted six and a half weeks, with 39 days of picking. By the time it was over on 27 October, pickers had passed through the vineyard five times. Yields were not high, as sharp spring frosts had reduced the crop. The extreme dry conditions led to unparalleled richness and concentration of the grape juice. Its exceptional quality would certainly have been recognised from the outset.

The terroir

The topsoil at Yquem is warm and dry, accumulating heat thanks to the smooth, flat pebbles and coarse gravel. The clay subsoil contains good water reserves, and there are several springs on the estate. Drainage pipes were installed in the 19th century to prevent waterlogging. Plantings are split between Sémillon (80%) and Sauvignon Blanc (20%), though the proportions are more equal in the final wine due to the latter's greater productivity.

The wine

As 1921 saw the hottest summer since the phenomenal vintage of 1893, which also produced outstanding sweet wines across Europe, the grapes reached unusually high sugar levels. This resulted in both high residual sugar and high alcohol, yet the wine remained balanced. Numerous bottlings of the 1921 vintage were made in different countries – many of the surviving bottles were bottled in Belgium by Van der Meulen – but these are inferior to the château-bottled examples.

The reaction

Michael Broadbent, in his Vintage Wine, recalls drinking the wine on more than 30 occasions. The colour is quite dark, he says, 'at best a warm amber-gold’, and the bouquet ‘very rich, honeyed of course, peachy, barley sugar (boiled and spun sugar), intense yet fragrant, custard cream, crème brûlée yet again, but very true'. On the palate: 'from sweet to very sweet, depending, I think, on context, unquestionably rich, powerful, even assertive, great length and intensity, and supported by life-preserving acidity. One of life’s sublime experiences.’ Bordeaux authority David Peppercorn MW concurs: ‘It is more like an essence than a wine, a unique experience.’ For US critic Robert Parker, this is a 100-point vintage of Yquem. Legendary wine writer Edmund Penning- Rowsell drank the wine in 1983, remarking that: ‘It had something of the richness of a fine old sweet Sherry without the alcoholic strength. Amazingly concentrated, perhaps the chief quality of this wine, it remained almost surprisingly drinkable.’ D “Very rich, honeyed, intense yet fragrant… One of life's sublime experiences”

The facts

  • Number of bottles produced: No record
  • Composition of blend: No record
  • Yield (hl/ha): No record
  • Alcohol content: 12.5%
  • Residual sugar: 112g/l
  • Release price: No record
  • Current price (at auction, 2009): £2,376 (bottle)

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