The pinnacle of French sweet wines, Château d’Yquem, is a natural pairing for dessert. But when Yquem released its 2019 vintage in March last year – a break from the traditional release in September – the iconic Sauternes house launched a new initiative—the Lighthouse programme. The idea was to create a community of select fine dining destinations around the world that serve as beacons and ambassadors showcasing the possibilities of enjoying Yquem by the glass at the beginning or middle of a meal.
The inspiration came from chef Guillaume Gallio of Caprice at Four Seasons Hong Kong, who paired a smoky, aromatic roasted duck dish with a 1991 Yquem (poured out of a 6L Imperial!). ‘It was opening people’s eyes to the possibilities of pairing Yquem,’ says Lorenzo Pasquini, director of winemaking and estate manager at Château d’Yquem, and they borrowed the idea.
Scroll down to see the tasting note and score for Château d’Yquem 2020
The 2020 vintage
As Yquem debuts its 2020 vintage release on 23 March 2023, there are now 45 top restaurants worldwide – up from 30 a year ago – that have embraced the concept, including 10 Lighthouses in the US and growing. There are 12 in China, six in France (none yet in Bordeaux), five in the UK as well as in Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, Dubai and even one in motion – the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
‘Our idea with the Lighthouse programme is to open new doors about the world of complexity that is Yquem,’ says Pasquini. ‘One hundred years ago, Sauternes wines were served at the beginning of a meal. So, we want to show all the possibilities, not to close doors but to open many others. In Sauternes, the typical pairing is with roast chicken. I love it with Duck Breast and tuna tartare with wasabi and crab risotto, and the Lighthouses are a way for us to showcase this.’
Michelin-starred restaurants and iconic establishments presently serving Yquem by the glass in the U.S. include California’s Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, Spago in Los Angeles, Single Thread Farms in Healdsburg. Beyond California, there’s The Chicago Club and RPM Steak in Chicago, Flagstaff House in Colorado, The Breakers in Palm Beach, and Sushi Nakazawa, Le Coucou, and Peak in New York City.
While the inclusion and description of each pairing vary from place to place, the sommelier striding across the room holding a double magnum, or in some instances, up to a six-litre bottle of Yquem, is a head-turner. Naturally, diners begin to ask questions.
Even when the bottle isn’t visible, sommeliers guide diners to purposeful pairings with savoury courses during a meal, with a typical add-on cost of £45-£75 a glass. The response has been all positive – its effect is a jollification for long-time fans of Yquem, while newbies become instant converts.
Towards a fresher, more fruit-forward Yquem
The 2020 Château d’Yquem is a blend of 75% Sémillon and 25% Sauvignon Blanc. This is a wine that majestically turns in the glass, like a prima ballerina, and lands on the palate softly, in perfect attitude or arabesque. Then it glides to an effortless finish balancing fruit ripeness, noble sweetness, and electric acid-freshness.
In Sauternes, difficult growing conditions, warming weather patterns and low humidity can hinder the development of botrytis in some years. Yields for the 2020 vintage at Yquem were around 10hl/ha, almost a third lower than in 2019 (as well lower than both the 2021 and 2022 vintages) as a consequence of both spring mildew attacks and strict selection during harvest in which the team had only five days to pick before the onset of late October rains. ‘Certainly we don’t have the power we can reach in years where we can wait for the grapes to get maximum concentration’, said Pasquini, but ‘the winemaking has evolved to cope’ he added.
‘In the last ten years, we have worked on preserving and enhancing the expression of the primary fruit. We can preserve the wine from oxygen even better than in the past and give this expression of the wine – the orange peel, saffron, and bergamot, all markers of botrytis. But now [in the wine’s youth], you have the fresh fruit expression of white peach, fresh apricot, white flowers, and Mirabelle, which makes the wine very complex in another way.’
Since 2011, Yquem has become ‘more crystalline,’ Pasquini asserts.
‘By reducing the ageing time (from around 36 months to 22 months for the 2020 vintage) and racking less. In the last 15 years, spontaneous yeasts mean a longer, slower fermentation with no racking, cooling or adding sulphur.’
From 2017 onward, ‘we are seeing this crystalline purity. It’s not an evolution in style, but an improvement every year.’
For Pasquini, what’s most important is that wine drinkers realise there is never a chance of opening the wine too early, particularly with newer vintages. ‘It’s very expressive in its youth,’ he says, ‘and it can be universal—a wine that can talk to every palate, from experts to first-timers.’
The 2020 vintage according to Pasquini has two key features; ‘crystalline aromatic expression’ and ‘delicacy of the palate’. Despite a reduction in length of oak ageing, the lighter style still spent 22 months in 100% new oak, something that is ‘key’ for the estate.
‘The intensity of the aromatics can withstand the wood. Even in a vintage like 2020, it’s important to stick to this ancestral approach of ageing wines in new barrels. There’s no risk of the wood overwhelming the wine, it helps add another dimension to the Botrytis, giving a gourmand element that preserves the fruit but enhances the expression’, he said.
US ‘Lighthouses’ present universal pairings
I sampled the 2020 Yquem with various cuisines in New York City and California, revelling in its versatility.
My first Lighthouse visit was to NYC’s Michelin-one-starred Le Coucou, a bastion of classic French cuisine helmed by chef Daniel Rose in Soho. Here, the 2020 Yquem paired with Pojarski de Volaille—an exquisite croquette preparation of minced chicken, Swiss chard, wild pear and apple, with a centre knob of foie gras, served with pomme puree and reduction sauce—was sweet, savoury, celestial.
Taken together, the apple and pear lifted the fruit notes in the wine. The richness of the food and wine filled the mid-palate with a bewildering depth of flavour. ‘From freshness to texture,’ offered sommelier Lajarius Hollins. The reduction sauce elevated Yquem’s tangy orange peel quality and sweet-salty minerality.
My dining companion was Raphaël Bino, business development manager North America for LVMH. He ordered the Quenelle de Brochet, Sauce Américaine, with pike mousse and a satiny lobster sauce, which taken with a sip of Yquem, married satin and silk, evoking velveteen dried apricots and tangy tangerine—another triumph.
Our next stop was Peak, a fashionable, hip lounge on the 101st floor of 30 Hudson Yards. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer remarkable panoramas of New York City. While it is de rigueur to simply pair the magnificent views with glasses of the aromatic 2020 Yquem ($75 per 2-ounce pour), head sommelier Beata Parzych likes to serve it along with executive chef Chris Cryer’s Hudson Valley foie gras poached in Sauternes – a no-brainer.
From skyscraper heavens, we dashed off to Michelin-one-starred Sushi Nakazawa in Greenwich Village. Helmed by chef Daisuke Nakazawa, who appeared in Jiro Dreams of Sushi as an apprentice to sushi master Jiro Ono. Nakazawa’s Omakase highlights the simplicity of imminently fresh bites of melt-in-your-mouth fish with exceptional beverage pairings by sommelier Dean Fuerth.
Fuerth filled our glasses with rare, remarkable sakes. From rose-coloured to amber-tinged aged sake, all bookended by a glass of 2020 Yquem at the start of the meal and 2008 Yquem toward the end of our 24-course Omakase.
So many bites of sushi perfectly complemented the Yquem. A striped jackfish brushed with soy, followed by Yquem, was silk on silk, enriching the minerality and salinity in the wine. A medium-fatty tuna was so buttery that washing it down with Yquem offered the brightest moment of the night. Creamy textures, umami warmth, soy and saffron all converged, then vanquished with cleansing tangy orange-peel acidity that neutralised the palate. It was the magic of a perfect pairing.
A toast on both coasts
Back in California, at the Rosewood Miramar, director of wine Daniel Fish parades three litres of Yquem around Caruso’s, the Michelin-one-star and green star open-air restaurant helmed by chef Massimo Falsini. With several vintages of Yquem on his by-the-glass programme, Fish pairs the 2020 with ‘compression of carbonara’, agnolotti stuffed with Iberico Jamón Pata Negra and emulsified egg yolk. Taken in one bite, the sweet flavours of Yquem play upon the savoury salty tones of the Pata Negra, peppercorn, and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano in the dish – the richness balanced by the Yquem’s bright acidity.
Meanwhile, the wine director at Single Thread, Chris McFall, pairs Yquem with a duck liver parfait. The dish crescendos into the middle of the meal, featuring apple, pear, and truffle cake—sweet-savoury elements that evoke savoury qualities in Yquem. Most guests who have experienced a middle-meal Yquem pairing ‘come back,’ says McFall. ‘Because they are looking for the surprise in the middle of the meal.’
For their part, Pasquini and Bino hope at least once in every person’s life, they get to enjoy Yquem under similar circumstances. It’s a lofty dream. But as long as the Lighthouses remain a shining beacon, sommeliers will flaunt their bottles, and Yquem will flow…long before dessert.
Château d’Yquem 2020 is being offered by the UK trade for £795 per three 75cl bottles.
See the tasting note and score for Château d’Yquem 2020
Wine tasted by Georgie Hindle, Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent.