Chateau d’Yquem holds just under 300 acres of vineyard land on gravelly, well-drained soil, but only uses about 250 to make wine in any given year. The remainder is due to a program of continual replanting which ensures that producing vines are always in their prime. And the vineyard is planted only to Semillion (75%) and Sauvignon Blanc (25%), eschewing Muscadelle which is commonly used in the area but makes less distinguished wine.
Within an hour of harvest, the grapes of Chateau d’Yquem are in the winery and being pressed. Unlike most white wines, quality actually improves with multiple pressings as that extracts more sugar and flavor intensity. Chateau d’Yquem three or four times, with the initial effort yielding about 75% of the total volume.
Chateau d’Yquem does all its fermentation in new French oak barrels. This is unsual for Sauternes, but results in the most flavorful and pristine wine. Although there is variation from one vintage to the next, the typical Chateau d’Yquem wine finishes fermentation at 13.5% alcohol with 150 grams/liter of sugar.
All the barrels age for six to eight months after fermentation. At that point, under-performing barrels are set aside. The remaining barrels go to the aging cellar for 20 months, where they are topped up twice weekly to maintain freshness. For pure flavors and clarity, the wines are also racked 15 times and then fined before the final, blind tasting which determines the blend that will go into bottle.
Although not always very outgoing when young, Chateau d’Yquem is marked by fruit (apricot, mandarin, and occasionally tropical fruit) and oak (vanilla and toasty aromas). Older vintages, on the other hand, have an extraordinarily complex fragrance as soon as the bottle is opened, with hints of dried fruit (dried apricot, prune, stewed fruit, and marmalade), spice (cinnamon, saffron, and liquorice), and even flowers (lime blossom, etc.). The first impression of Chateau d'Yquem on the palate is always very silky, and often sumptuous. It then fills out, "coating the palate". This fine wine has a strong, but never overbearing character, with great elegance and poise. It always maintains a balance between sugar and acidity (sweetness and freshness). A touch of bitterness can also contribute to the overall harmony.
Sauternes is the best and most sought-after region for dessert wine in Bordeaux, perhaps in all of France. Chateau d’Yquem is the most celebrated of all Sauternes producers.
The history of d’Yquem can be traced back to 1593, when local nobleman Jacques Sauvage became the feudal overseer of the property. The area was already home to late-harvest wines even then, and the Sauvage family moved things forward, creating “modern” vineyards—and the famous chateau—on the unique hill that contributes to d’Yquem’s outstanding quality. In 1711, the Sauvage family became full owners of the property and managed to retain it through the French Revolution.
The quality and reputation of Chateau d’Yquem wine improved as the vineyard was methodically expanded and enhanced. By the late 18th century, it was celebrated internationally and counted Thomas Jefferson among its staunch supporters. But the house continued to innovate and better its practices. The constructed a large, purpose-built cellar for maturation and aging in 1826 and, not long after, began harvesting in multiple passes to optimize fruit quality. This work was rewarded when Chateau d’Yquem was designated the only 1er Cru Superieur dessert wine in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines.