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Producer profile: Château d’Yquem

Fine-tuning in vineyard and cellar and a move towards freshness and finesse in both the esteemed Sauternes and dry white have sparked criticism. But Stephen Brook finds standards as high as ever at this 'historic monument'...

Château d’Yquem at a glance

Owner LVMH
Area 100 ha
Varieties 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc
Average age of vines 30 years
Soils Varied, but essentially pebbles over clay
Average production 100,000 bottles of Yquem, 10,000 of Ygrec

Château d’Yquem Profile:

As wine-related soap operas go, there are few to beat the battle between the Lur-Saluces family of Yquem and the LVMH luxury goods group. In 1996, Bernard Arnault’s company first made its move, exploiting the knowledge that among the 50 or so shareholders of the great first growth, many were ready to cash in their shares. Moreover, some accused Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, the director of Yquem, of high-handedness. Without a united resistance to the takeover, defeat seemed inevitable, and in 1999 LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) became the majority shareholder. Assurances were sought, and given, that Yquem’s impeccably high standards would be maintained.

View all of Decanter’s Château d’Yquem tasting notes

Pierre Lurton, already at the helm of Arnault’s other first growth, Cheval Blanc, now found himself running a second one. Immediately, changes were made. Under Lur-Saluces, Yquem had never been offered en primeur. Lurton offered the 1999 vintage at a relatively modest price to kick-start interest in Yquem as a whole, as it was said that there were considerable stocks of unsold bottles in the cellars. When the superb 2001 vintage came along, the opening price more than doubled.

But Lurton wisely made no changes to the Yquem team. Francis Mayeur, technical director since 1983, remained in place, as did Dr Sandrine Garbay, cellarmaster since 1998. However, he did appoint Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux and the owner of secondgrowth Sauternes estate Doisy-Daëne, as consultant.

With the team unaltered, there were to be no dramatic changes in farming or winemaking, although there was inevitably some fine-tuning. Under Lur-Saluces the aim at harvest had been to pick bunches or grapes with a potential alcohol of 21%, so as to deliver the balance of alcohol and residual sugar typical of Yquem. ‘Today,’ says Mayeur, ‘we have a range of must weights from 18% to 24%, as we find having a wider range gives us different aromas and levels of concentration, and thus more complexity. We also end up with more parcel selections for blending; in some years there can be as many as 40.’

The balance of the blend will determine the final residual sugar in each vintage. Mayeur aims for between 120 and 140 grams per litre, rather higher than 20 years ago when 80 to 120g/l was the norm, but that reflects the richness and ripeness of most recent vintages. But even so, Yquem is not the richest and weightiest Sauternes – many others have higher residual sugar.

There have been changes to the pressing regime too, with pneumatic presses used for the first two pressings, and the third done in a modern vertical press and kept aside. It is then assessed to decide whether to incorporate it into the final blend.

Lur-Saluces had always aged Yquem for at least 36 months in new oak, but Lurton feared oxidation could affect certain lots, so the time was reduced to no more than 30 months. ‘The other advantage of this,’ explains Garbay, ‘is we need fewer rackings and thus less sulphur dioxide. All this helps retain more fruit in the wine.’ About 10 months after the harvest a preliminary blend is assembled, leaving 10% to 20% of the lots to be assessed later. The final blend is made soon before bottling.

Changing styles

Like any botrytised wine, Sauternes is dependent on vintage conditions. So it should have come as no surprise when Yquem decided not to release any wine from the poor 2012 vintage. There was some indignation when this was announced, but this has long been the policy. There is no Yquem from 1964 or 1972 and from many earlier vintages. Lurton observed: ‘High sugars aren’t enough. You need aroma and texture too.’ Garbay agreed: ‘Yquem has to be intense, complex. But 2012 was just too light. It’s not what our customers expect from an Yquem. There’s no interest in our releasing a Petit Yquem.’

Although Lurton downplays the importance of Dubourdieu’s appointment (‘He keeps us on our toes, but it was never our intention for Denis to put his own stamp on the wines’) he concedes that Dubourdieu did a play a role in altering the style of Ygrec, the estate’s dry wine. Under Lur-Saluces, it was produced from very ripe but insufficiently botrytised grapes and vinified to near dryness. On the nose, it was easily taken for a Sauternes, but one sip made the taster realise it was nothing of the sort.

Lurton never liked Ygrec: ‘In the past it showed a lot of botrytis, and was made in an oxidative style and could be petrolly. It wasn’t modern. This is where Denis was helpful, advising us to pick specific parcels and to pick earlier.’ Since 2005 the style has changed – it’s essentially dry, with 7g/l or 8g/l residual sugar balanced by the acidity, and enough fruit richness to deliver 15% alcohol. It’s like a super-charged white Graves, but I can imagine there are some who regret the passing of the occasionally clumsy but distinctive old-style Ygrec.

Alexandre de Lur-Saluces used to say that Yquem was like a protected monument – everyone admired it but nobody drank it. Lurton would never say it in public, but I suspect the LVMH team is encountering the same problem. Average production is some 100,000 bottles, but the market for great Sauternes is not exactly buoyant, so Lurton hopes by changing the patterns of consumption, sales may increase.

‘We need to alter the perception that Yquem has to be aged 50 years before it can be drunk. I know Brits love really old Sauternes, but there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from consuming it young. The 2007 and 2008 are drinking well now. You have to chill it more than an old wine and you may lose a bit of the aroma, but it has a freshness and accessibility that are marvellous. This move towards freshness and finesse has earned us some criticism, from writers who find our wines less rich than some other Sauternes. But our aim has never been to produce monstrous wines with huge sugar levels. That’s not what Yquem is about.

Attracting the drinkers

‘A more subtle task is to demystify what has become a mythic wine,’ continues Lurton. ‘We must stop being timid about communicating its exceptional character. We’ve taken on a young man who was at Cheval Blanc to assist precisely in this work. Of course I do a lot of the ambassadorial work myself, but we need someone to work on packaging, events, and other matters. It’s his job to get closer to the consumers and to unite Yquem lovers.

‘We also need to ensure that people drink the wine, not just collect it. Yquem may seem very expensive, but when you consider the costs and risks of production and the tiny volumes, it really isn’t. We just need to work harder promoting Yquem. It’s not hard – we just need to get wine lovers to put their nose in the glass! Fortunately, there’s lots of interest and curiosity in Asia, especially matching Yquem with their cuisines. But I admit it’s not easy.’

Nothing in recent vintages suggests there have been any compromises in the production of Yquem. In the vineyard and the winery, the old team is as committed as ever to maintaining standards, and changes introduced since the LVMH takeover seem sensible and justifiable. The Lur-Saluces family, with its centuries of custodianship, may have taken a relaxed view of the bottom line – until some shareholders decided otherwise.

LVMH is unlikely to be sentimental about this feather in its Bordeaux cap. A great Sauternes property soaks up money – the low yields (perhaps a quarter of those from a top Médoc property), the immense costs of harvesting, the cost of new oak, the campaign to build the profile of the property in new Asian markets, and so on. Arnault can’t have been unaware of this. Let’s hope this historic monument of the wine world will attract drinkers as well as admirers, and continue to thrive for centuries to come.

Château d’Yquem: a timeline

Ownership of Château d’Yquem passed from the English crown to the king of France, Charles VII

Jacques de Sauvage leases Yquem from the French king Henri IV

The Sauvage family becomes sole owner of Yquem

The vintage ordered by George Washington and his ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson

Wedding of Françoise- Joséphine de Sauvage to Louis-Amadée de Lur Saluces, godson of Louis XV

A celebrated vintage for Yquem (in 2011, a bottle of the 1811 sold for a record £75,000)

Death of Françoise- Joséphine de Lur Saluces, having regained ownership of Yquem after the Revolution

Classified as premier cru supérieur, the only first growth with this accolade

Grand Duke Constantine of Russia pays 20,000 francs for a 900-litre cask of the 1847 Yquem, four times the previous record price

Yquem first served at the Japanese imperial court

A uniquely early harvest, beginning on 28 August

First vintage of Yquem’s dry wine Ygrec

Pierre Meslier becomes technical director of Yquem

Marquis Bertrand de Lur Saluces hands over the running of Yquem to his nephew Comte Alexandre

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