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Sandrine Garbay of Chateau d’Yquem talks to Decanter

At 31, Sandrine Garbay became winemaker at the famed Sauternes estate. She lacked confidence, her staff didn’t trust her, and the owner was fighting a hostile takeover. How has she survived 11 years, asks MARGARET RAND

When Sandrine Garbay started studying wine, she didn’t particularly enjoy drinking it. Hers was a purely academic approach; a way of applying her interest in biology and agriculture, and of working, eventually, in a laboratory.

Yet here she is, pulling berries off the first bunches of what will become Château d’Yquem 2009 and tasting them with a great deal more appreciation than analysis. She’s not wearing a white lab coat, and when she dives into her office it’s the one that says ‘Maître de Chai’ on the door. If you wanted to end up here you wouldn’t start where she started. So what happened?

‘A doctor told me it’s normal not to appreciate wine until about 21, because your brain and your tastebuds aren’t attuned to it,’ she says. ‘Wine was an interesting product but I didn’t especially want to drink it.’ So when she decided at 18 to study oenology, it was in the same way as one might study marine biology without wishing to eat oysters.

But in 1987, at age 20, while doing her first stage (apprenticeship) – which just happened to be at Château Latour – her tastebuds grew up. ‘It was a revelation,’ she says. Two years later she got her oenologist’s licence, and went to work at a laboratory run by Aline Lonvaud-Funel, a specialist in lactic-acid bacteria. For the next five years she was immersed in the intricacies of malolactic fermentation.

‘Then I had the chance to do a PhD in oenology. Normally it’s impossible to study for a PhD if you have only the oenology licence and not a Masters: the level of study is not the same.’ But five years of lab research swung it for her; and with a PhD under her belt, her dream was now to make wine at an estate.

Lonvaud-Funel’s Bordeaux lab was next to one used by consultant Serge Chauvet. Garbay’s husband is a podiatrist and set up locally in Sauternes, and gradually the idea of her working in the area took shape in her mind. She asked Chauvet if by chance he knew of a job. He mentioned a small estate he knew where there might be an opening. It was called Château d’Yquem…

And so it came to pass that in 1994, aged 27, Garbay found herself in charge of the lab at Sauternes’ only premier cru classé supérieur. The estate was then owned by the Lur-Saluces family, run by Alexandre de Lur-Saluces; the winemaker was Guy Latrille, and there was no sign, as far as Garbay was concerned, of the eruptions that would result, only a few years later, ending 400 years of family descent.

The Yquem lab was new; they’d built it two years before, but had nobody to work in it, because the cellar master knew nothing of analysis. ‘Alexandre wanted me to do quality control,’ says Garbay, ‘but also to work on sulphur combination in Sauternes; he wanted me to look for solutions to the problem and do research.

The image of Yquem was traditional, but it wasn’t like that inside. Alexandre was very forward-looking He was very open-minded about appointing a woman; it was natural for him.’ The cellar master was equally open minded, as were all the staff; it seems to have been a happy ship. Then, in 1998, when the winemaker left, Garbay was promoted.

Learning the hard way

She had no problems with the winemaking: four years of working closely with the winemaker meant that she knew what to do and, in any case, she reckons that Sauternes pretty much makes itself. ‘But it was difficult in the cellar, because all the team knew me as their peer, and now I was above them, and our relationship changed.

For me it was the same – I was the same – but for them it was not.’ She had no management training and her nature, she says, is ‘to discuss, explain, consult, not give orders. It wasn’t difficult in the 1998 harvest, but 1999 was terrible for me. [The team] had the practice and I had the theory. It was hard for them to understand that I wanted to work with them, not against them.

When they understood that I had respect for them it was better, but it took two years.’ One can imagine what a lonely period this must have been, learning to make decisions and to manage, with nobody to tell her how to do it. ‘My husband helped me the most. He had a good idea of my job and the team, and had an objective view.’

He needed it, as Garbay brought her difficulties home with her. ‘He said, “learn to make the break between work and home,” and helped me understand the character of my colleagues. He also helped me to have confidence in myself – I lack confidence – and challenged me to impose myself.’

At the same time that Garbay was learning to be a manager rather than just a colleague, Lur-Saluces was struggling to maintain ownership of his property in the face of family shareholders who wanted to sell. At the end of 1999, Yquem was sold to luxury fashion house Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton (LVMH). Lur-Saluces was a good owner of Yquem, and one senses he was much loved by his staff. They hated seeing him in trouble, and they didn’t much like being uncertain about the future: what would LVMH do with it? Who would go, and who would stay? And would Garbay keep her job?

As it turned out, LVMH was extremely respectful of its new acquisition, and Lur-Saluces continued to run the property until 2004, when he turned 70. LVMH installed a manager, Emerique de Montaud, who was there for 18 months – just long enough for them all to get to know him and appreciate his rigour and transparent management – when he was sent back to Paris, and Pierre Lurton arrived.

‘A coup de theâtre,’ Garbay calls it, ‘and wounding for Alexandre and Emerique: it was a delicate situation. Alexandre made a complete break. He never came back to Yquem, there was no farewell lunch or anything; it was his choice. I was sentimental about Yquem, so it was difficult. We meet him regularly, and he invites us to De Fargues. Pierre [Lurton] kept an open door for Alexandre, but he had to impose himself, and Alexandre understood.’

Lurton is clearly a fan of Garbay and talks of what a star she is; how he’s almost jealous. But Garbay interrupts to remind him how they had met before Yquem, when she’d visited the LVMH-owned Cheval Blanc on a technical matter. ‘So I knew he was très abordable – approachable,’ says Garbay. ‘Très snob,’ jokes Lurton. Lurton jokes a lot (it’s difficult to get him to stay serious for the length of a sentence) but Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, didn’t give him the job of running both Cheval Blanc and Yquem because of his sense of humour.

He has a very sharp brain, but he arrived at Yquem, thinks Garbay, with one or two preconceptions. He appears to have thought it was all a bit too traditional and closed, and talked of waking up a sleeping beauty. The staff said they didn’t need waking up, thank you. And after a few months he understood, says Garbay. He engaged consultant Denis Dubourdieu and she’s pleased with his scientific approach and outside viewpoint, even though he only visits a couple of times a year. She says of Lurton: ‘He gave us a second wind; he’s like fresh air. He’s been good for Yquem and for the team.’

Benefits of change

The changes that Garbay, Lurton and Dubourdieu have effected between them at Yquem are small but subtle, and well documented elsewhere: slightly more freshness and a better grip of volatile acidity at fermentation; slightly less time in barrel; better, more efficient control at bottling; production increased slightly to 100,000 bottles a year. Racking under nitrogen is something she introduced a year ago, for a touch more freshness, ‘though we have to be careful, because Yquem is known for a slightly oxidative character’.

Change is more noticeable in Ygrec, the dry white that could veer between weird and wonderful and just weird: now it’s fresher and crisper, less oxidative, but still smells of Sauternes while tasting dry. Production is now 10,000 bottles a year. Two years ago they started experimenting with synthetic corks, and now that screwcaps have better controlled porosity, they might look at them, too, though their customers are very attached to cork.

The greatest satisfaction for Garbay is in the new improved Ygrec. ‘Sweet wines are all made in the vineyard and in the sorting. In the cellar there’s not much to do: you have to be careful, clean, and attentive to sulphur levels to avoid refermentation, but there are no big steps. With dry whites there are so many questions…’ – destemming, yeasts, the alcoholic fermentation, ageing on the lees or not, barrels or not. They started to change Ygrec in 1996, and got it right in 2000.

Ask her which is her favourite vintage of Yquem, however, and she chooses 2002 or 2004. ‘They’re not famous Sauternes vintages, but they give me most satisfaction because they were so difficult. The 2001 is a wonderful wine, but nature provided it. It’s my favourite of recent years, but I’m not so proud of it.’ The best she’s ever drunk, though, is the 1937. ‘It’s the most perfect.’ And the best age to drink Yquem? ‘Fifteen years old. I either like it very young, at one year or so, or at 15 years. The 1998 is good now, but that’s unusual. At 10 years or so, Yquem is difficult.’

Garbay has been there 15 years now. And yes, she does now seem to be enjoying it.

Written by Margaret Rand

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