Sweet Relief at Chateau d'Yquem

by Chuck Hayward

Sweet Relief at Chateau d'Yquem

Post by Devon Magee | April 6th, 2012

Chateau d'Yquem

After seven consecutive days of tasting the 2011 Bordeaux reds from morning to night, nothing was more soothing on my palate than a trip south to Sauternes to taste the vintage’s deliciously sweet (and tannin-free!) whites. Amidst a week of rumblings regarding the patchiness of 2011 reds compared to ’09 and ’10, I found the persistent voice of an extraordinary vintage in Sauternes after visiting eight of the top chateaux.

To talk vintages in Sauternes is to talk botrytis, and in 2011, this noble rot spread quickly and uniformly, allowing growers to start picking early (at peak ripeness), to pick quickly, and to finish early. The result is evident in the purity of expression and freshness in the top examples that we tasted.

Yquem vineyard and environs

And I’ll start at the top, with Chateau d’Yquem. Apart from the wine, the Chateau itself is worth a visit in and of itself, as sits atop the highest hill in the expansively flat region (80m altitude!). From here, I can see the myriad greens of well-watered trees and grass (this is not the endless, bare-but-for-vineyard Medoc slope). Everything seems to be growing, from moss on the vines to grass between the rows, and as you breathe in the humid air, it’s easy to imagine those noble spores populating and thriving on the skins of the semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes.

Lungs full of this thick air, we entered the Chateau to taste the 2011 Yquem barrel sample. To summarize our findings, Yquem’s signature opulence and poise are present, yet more striking is the absolute balance and precision. The citrus notes run the gamut of Meyer lemon to clementine and on to orange blossom, and the high acidity provides a refreshing lift that defines the vintage. My palate and gums, fatigued from a week of nonstop red wine tannins, reveled in the ‘11’s rich freshness.

2011 sample

Our host, Renaud Ruer, Yquem’s commercial director, called the 2011 Yquem the best since 2001. In Sauternes, unlike their Medoc neighbors an hour north and a world away, the en primeur buzz was so quiet that you could hear a botrytized berry fall. Producers appeared cautiously optimistic (we were, after all, tasting these wines only six months after harvest, and well before the final blend!). They called the vintage “great,” yet held back from “vintage of the generation” declarations.

I, for one, am a little more than cautiously optimistic. The freshness of the vintage belies the wine’s richness, which, trust me, is still there. Most of the wines measured 140+ grams of sugar per liter. I was surprised to find that with so much freshness, I could imagine the 2011s pairing with spicy cuisine, much like a German Spatlese, and much to the delight of Sauternes producers who consistently preach the versatility of Sauternes with food.

Another surprise was Y’grec, Yquem’s dry white (technically a Bordeaux Blanc), which I tasted for the first time. The 2011, unfortunately, was not available to sample, so Renaud poured us the 2010 instead. The '10 is two thirds sauvignon blanc and one third semillon, picked before botrytis hit the vineyard. It reminded me of a Northern Rhone white meeting a Grand Cru white Burgundy. Tight and reserved in its youth, with mid-palate weight and muscular mineral structure, it still expressed lemon and lime citrus nuances.

Commercial Director Renaud Ruer discusses the vintage with JJ Buckley staff

Renaud admitted to us that Y’grec, produced since 1959, has remained somewhat of a mystery in the wine world, as Yquem has always focused more on its Grand Vin. Last year, he and his team met to determine the future of this singular wine. The decision, as Renaud told us, was between abandoning production and focusing more energy into it – all or nothing. The voice of reason came from Yquem’s 25-year veteran of vineyard management. He reminded everyone of the quality and potential in the superior land to which he tends every day – that of Yquem’s singular 360-degree hillside vineyard. There was no denying this point, and Renaud promised us that we will be hearing much more about the 2011 Y’grec this fall.

On a side note, across the Ciron River in the limestone soils of Barsac, it was at family-owned Chateau Coutet where we had, hands down, one of our favorite visits. Proprietor Aline Baly and her uncle Philippe graciously unveiled the first vintage (2010) of their Blanc, called Opalie. It carried a similar weight to the Y’grec, along with a chalky minerality and a powerful underlying structure. And like the Y’grec, it bore little resemblance to its white neighbors to the north in Graves. I can’t wait to taste both of these 2011s.