While Bordeaux is known for its bold red wines, the region is home to vineyards producing exclusively white grape varieties. In Sauternes, a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes combine to create some of the highest quality sweet wines on the market, thanks to vines infected with noble rot. Although its name is peculiar, noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea, is a fungus that infects grapes and produces sweet and very alcoholic wines.
Produced in Sauternes, France, in the southern Bordeaux region, Château d’Yquem wines are widely recognized as some of the finest sweet white wines in the world. The château extends over 113 hectares of vineyards, with only two grape varieties planted: 75% Sémillon and 25% Sauvignon Blanc.
The estate has been producing wine for centuries, and its cuvées are highly sought after by collectors due to their incredible quality and long shelf life. Due to their high sugar and acidity content, Château d’Yquem wines keep for well over a century and only get better with age. Now that you know the basics, here are 10 more things to know about the iconic wine label.
Don’t miss a drop
Get the latest in beer, wine and cocktail culture straight to your inbox.
It once belonged to the King of England.
While Château d’Yquem is known today as one of France’s most elite wine houses, for a long time the estate was in English hands. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Château belonged to the King of England, who also bore the title of Duke of Aquitaine. It was not until 1453 that the estate would return to French hands, when King Charles VII redeemed the lands under French domination.
In 1593, the castle was taken over by the Sauvage family…
In the 16th century, Jacques de Sauvage, a descendant of nobles, obtained the feudal tenure of the castle. Over the following centuries, the Sauvage family made the château what it is today. In 1711, the family became full owners of the estate and consolidated a reputation as producers of quality wines. At the end of the 18th century, after the loss of her husband Count Louis Amédée, Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem became the sole head of the château.
Although she was imprisoned twice for her fierce opposition to the French Revolution as a royalist, and was a widow with two children at just 20, she was able to maintain a stronghold on the estate. In 1826, Françoise Joséphine, once released from prison, built a new wine cellar under the castle in a move considered by many to be wildly daring. The construction then proved to be successful, it made it possible to vinify in much better conditions and to open up the aging in barrels to the vineyard. Most winegrowers at the time were unable to age their wines themselves in barrels, but instead had to send them elsewhere to be aged by merchants in Bordeaux cellars. The construction of the cellar in 1826 helped transform Yquem into the international company it is today.
…Until the estate was transformed from a wine-growing center into a military hospital.
In 1918, the Château d’Yquem was taken over by the military officer Marquis Bertrand de Lur-Saluces. During World War I and World War II, the estate was turned into a military hospital where French soldiers were sent to rest and recuperate if injured. Indeed, the chestnut tree which still lives just on the other side of the castle walls was planted by soldiers. Despite the fact that the estate was used as a hospital, wine production continued during both world wars.
In the 1970s, a perfect storm threatened to close Château d’Yquem.
When Alexandre de Lur-Saluces took over the management of Château d’Yquem from his uncle Bertrand, exorbitant inheritance taxes, combined with numerous mediocre vintages and a crisis in the Bordeaux trade, threatened the durability of the estate. 1972, 1973 and 1974 were exceptionally difficult years for Yquem due to extreme rainfall and unpredictable weather changes which delayed harvest times and resulted in less than ideal production conditions. Fortunately, things changed in 1975 with a vintage that has been described as “heaven in a glass”. Followed by several strong vintages in the 1980s, the château regained the upper hand.
The Château d’Yquem winemakers follow a rigorous multi-step process.
The grapes from the Château d’Yquem vineyard appear in its cellars no more than an hour after being harvested. From there, the grapes are fermented in new stave oak barrels from forests in eastern France. The fermentation process, which stops naturally, usually takes between two and six weeks. Once fermented, these wines, made from grapes harvested the same day, are aged separately for six to eight months. At this stage, a preliminary mixture is made, which then undergoes several laboratory analyzes and taste tests. The remaining barrels then undergo an additional aging process for 20 months, after which they are topped off with more wine to fill in any air space caused by evaporation. At the end of aging in barrels, each wine is tasted blind. The selected wine determines the final blend, which will then be bottled the third winter after harvest. The remaining “rejected” wines, or blends that were produced in years when no vintage was made, although probably still delectable, are sold anonymously to other producers in the region.
Château d’Yquem is in a class of its own.
In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III requested the creation of a classification system for Sauternes wines. As such, the cru system was created as a means of categorizing the quality of terroir in the region. At the time, only two classifications were in place: premier cru and second cru. However, the wines of Château d’Yquem have been so well rated that the estate has obtained its own classification: Premier Cru Supérieur.
There is some debate around when Château d’Yquem wines should be drunk.
Vintage wines are what Château d’Yquem is famous for, and there are notable differences between the estate’s young and old vintages. Younger vintages will highlight woody and vanilla notes, marked by fruity notes of apricot, mandarin and exotic fruits. On the other hand, older vintages are much more structured and complex, with notes of prune, stewed fruit and dried apricot. As such, there is a lively debate among wine connoisseurs around the appropriate time to open a bottle. While some wine connoisseurs believe wine can be enjoyed at any stage of life, other connoisseurs consider drinking a young vintage before it has aged for at least 13 years “equals a sacrilege”.
The château also produces Y, a rare wine.
Although from the same terroir and vines as the more widely recognized Château d’Yquem, Y is a rare wine label of which only 10,000 bottles are produced each year. Sauvignon Blanc grapes for this label are harvested early in the vintage, supplemented with Semillion grapes harvested a few weeks later once they have reached peak maturity. The wines are then fermented in a vat reserved exclusively for wines of the Y brand, then put into barrels for the end of fermentation and ageing.
The wines of Château d’Yquem have long been appreciated by the elite.
Thomas Jefferson, who served as an American minister to France between 1785 and the French Revolution, developed a deep interest in French wine, and by 1788 the wines of Château d’Yquem were among his favourites. In the early 2000s, a collection of wines was discovered behind a brick wall in Paris, all engraved with the initials “Th.J.” Among the bottles were several wines from Château d’Yquem.
The love for French sweet wines has also spread to the other side of the world. In 1859, Grand Duke Constantin, brother of the Tsar of Russia, reportedly purchased a barrel of Château d’Yquem for 20,000 gold francs, or about $258,000 in today’s dollars – a price totally unheard of in Europe. era.
One of the most expensive bottles of wine ever sold was a Château d’Yquem.
In 2011, Christian Vanneque, a former sommelier at La Tour d’Argent in Paris, bought a bottle of Château d’Yquem from 1811 for the modest sum of $117,000. Unlike many wine collectors and heavy buyers, Vanneque, at the time of purchase, planned to actually drink the wine, stating, “It’s not investment related. I am a sommelier. The wine is to drink.