Château d'Yquem is the premier Château in the Sauternes wine district of France, and producer of some of the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. Prices of recent vintages are typically a few hundred pounds/dollars/Euros per bottle, with some very old wines—from the first half of the 19th century—fetching well over £10 000/$15 000/€ 15 000 per bottle. The Château and its brand names are currently owned by the LVMH group. The dry wines from the Château are often referred to as Ygrec, or simply ‘Y’.

If you want to order a bottle, then pronounce it as, "Shat-oh deeky-em"

Botrytis-affected white wines

The reputation of Ch. d’Yquem, however, is built on its sweet, white wines. These wines, like all the great Sauternes, are made from grapes affected by the noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). This mould thrives in the warm Autumn air, made humid by mists rising from the river Ciron, which flows into the Garonne in the Sauternes district. As the mould grows on the living grape skins, it makes the skins porous, and any subsequent wind evaporates moisture from the grapes in the dry afternoon sunshine. This process, repeated each day over a week or so, leaves intensely sweet, concentrated juice inside the shrivelled skin. Although this means there is very little liquid left in the grapes from which to make wine, the resulting drink is truly the nectar of the gods.

At Ch. d’Yquem, the grapes are picked in waves, as each wave first ripens, becomes infected with the botrytis, and then shrivels. Usually the first attack of botrytis comes in early September, the first grapes are then picked in the third week of the month, with the harvest complete by October 25th. Ch. d’Yquem uses mostly Sémillon grapes with some Sauvignon blanc. The Sémillon have thinner skins, which means they tend to shrivel relatively quickly after the botrytis becomes established, whereas the Sauvignon blanc (also known in the US as the fumé blanc grape) gives more acidity to the wine.

Ch. d’Yquem produces less than 15 hectolitres of wine per ha of vines. Typical Grand Cru reds made in the same area produce more like 50 hectolitres per ha, while producers more interested in quantity than quality might get a yield of over 100 hectolitres per ha. This illustrates how much moisture is lost through the noble rot, and how concentrated the finished wines become.

Other places produce botrytis-affected wine, Tokaji from Hungary and the Trockenbeerenauslese and Beerenauslese wines from Germany and Austria are the most famous, but Australia and California also produce small quantities. None, however, can match Ch. d’Yquem in intensity, flavour, prestige, or price.

The world’s greatest wine?

Ch. d’Yquem is one of the very greatest wines in the world, alongside its near-neighbours in Bordeaux, Chateau Pétrus and Chateau Margaux; the Domaine Romanée Conti wines of Burgundy; well-aged Madeira, Port, or Tokaji, and some of the great vintage champagnes. Many would argue that of all these monuments to the wine-maker’s art, d’Yquem stands out as the very best of all, thanks to its immense lifetime and the complexity and subtleties of its flavours. Me? I’ve never tasted the stuff.

Ch. d’Yquem holds the title, "Premier Cru Supérieur", the most prestigious title of any Bordeaux wine, and further to its credit, was the first chateau to win this title, back in 1855.

The chateau produces a vintage each year, but extra-special ones to look for include 1929, 1947 or 1949.

1989, also looks to be a very good year for Ch. d’Yquem. The company is also predicting good things for 2001.

A long history

Although the history almost certainly goes back to the first millenium, the first documented record of the modern Ch. d’Yquem was a deed transferring tenure from the State to Jacques de Sauvage in 1593. Nearly two hundred years later, in 1785, the house and estates transferred to the Lur-Saluces family through the marriage of Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage , “la Dame d'Yquem”, to Louis Amédée de Lur Saluces. Louis Amédée was well connected, being godson to Louis XV in France. The boundaries of the estate have remained unchanged since that time. It still lies a kilometre or so to the north-east of the village of Sauternes, in the Bordeaux region of France