Sauternes may be ambrosia, but D’Yquem is downright Olympian!
If you have a job. If you like dessert wines. If you want a sensation to last a lifetime. Buy a bottle of D’Yquem and share it (ideally, with me).
Sauternes is a commune (a French village or parish) and the Chateau D’Yquem, which was originally a four-towered fortress with a moat, sits atop the central hill at the high point of the commune. The chateau has been in the possession of the same family (with some marital transmissions) since at least the fourteenth century, before which records are unknown.
Chateau D’Yquem has a long and vivid history in which parts are played by such notables as the Grand Duke Constantine and Thomas Jefferson. The building itself has constructions and alterations dated variously to: the 1300s, 1545, and the seventeenth century. A historical debate revolves around the origin of the use of botrytis at Chateau D’Yquem. Classically, the date is placed in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there are reasonable claims that a bottle of Jefferson’s from 1784 suggests botrytis-enhanced grapes have been used in the production of luscious magnificence for far longer.
D’Yquem not only occupies the peak of hilly Sauternes literally, but is also regarded as the peak of wine craft in the region.
To this day, wine making at D’Yquem is a patient and traditional craft demanding nothing less than perfection. Wooden presses, new oak barrels, sweet rich must, and long unhurried fermentation prepare a great wine that will age gracefully for a long, long time. Draft horses are still used as the workforce at the chateau. At Chateau D’Yquem each grape is plucked from the bunch, one by one, by a skilled artisan assessing the readiness of the grapes, seeking the peak of that particular grape’s perfection. Eighty to ninety hectares are in production at any given time with 150 harvesters making as many as thirteen passes over the grapes during harvest. Such painstaking care is taken that the harvest has been known to take two months and last into December, sometimes causing additional losses due to weather. Because it is the philosophy of the chateau that it is better to let the grapes be wasted than to produce a D’Yquem inferior to the standards that have caused their wine to be celebrated as the greatest in the world, Chateau D’Yquem did not produce vintages during at least the 1951, 52, 64, 72, 74, and 92 seasons.
Sauternes in general are notably expensive -- with young less vibrant labels routinely fetching in excess of $50 per half bottle -- but their prices feel like a bargain when compared to D’Yquem. At a recent (November 2002) auction of The Chicago Wine Company, bottles of D’Yquem sold for between $200 and $4400. The breakdown of full bottles at that auction follows (though, bear in mind the quality of the offerings varied considerably): 1878 for $1550, 1900 for $4400, 1970 for $200, 1975 for $360-425, 1976 for $380, 1983 for $1700, 1988 for $235, 1995 for $225, and 1997 for $260. These prices are substantially lower than I have found at retail wine merchants and were taken during a slow economic period.
I also suggest the use of Sauternes glasses from Reidel's Sommeliers series for maximal enjoyment of your D'Yquem or any other Sauternes.
Grands Vins: The finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines. Clive Coates. 1995. University of California Press.
The Oxford Companion to Wine. Jancis Robinson, ed. 1994. Oxford University Press.
The Chicago Wine Company website. www.tcwc.com.