Our appointment at Yquem was rescheduled to 3:30, which turned out to be a blessing because we actually didn’t arrive until 3pm. Taking the back roads in France – though scenic –takes much longer than the freeways.
We met with David Marc, the assistant winemaker, who provided a very informative whirlwind tour of the estate. Beginning in the vineyard, he explained that Yquem is situated at the highest point in Sauternes – 80 meters – and that the region gets 92 days of fog per year. He said that fog and wind are needed to make good sweet botrytised wine, and that it is the Garonne River, Ciron Stream and Leland Forest that creates these special conditions for Sauternes and Barsac.
As we stood on the hilltop next to the ancient fortress of Yquem dating from the 14th century, he pointed out other famous chateaux surrounding us. I thought once again how charming the region of Sauternes is – like a small fairyland with many castles and gently rolling hills. The little village of Sauternes with its pretty church, quaint restaurants, and friendly tourist center is also very nice. When I visited Chateau d’Arche last April and had such a wonderful tour and tasting, I wanted to return and stay in Sauternes. I guess it will have to be next time.
David explained that Sauternes is a total of 220,000 hectares and produces 2% of Bordeaux’s wine. Yquem has 115 hectares with 80% Semillon and 20% SB. They don’t believe in using muscadelle because of its tendency to grey rot. The soil is limestone, clay and a gravel surface. They must use drainage systems – both old terra cotta and new PVC. Rootstock is a mix of Ripara, SO4 and 101-14. Spacing is 1 x 1.5. They have 28 different parcels and use 4 teams totaling 200 pickers to pass through the vineyard 5 to 6 times to pick the botrytis grapes one by one.
The ripeness goal is 20% potential alcohol, which David said is challenging for other chateaux which often only achieve 17-18% and must chaptalize – however, Yquem usually always achieves 20%. There are 4 buds per vine, with the sweetness goal being 350 gpl sugar in order to harvest. Though the region allows up to 25 hectoliters per hectare, Yquem does only 8-9, and in 2008, they only got 2! They usually produce around 120,000 bottles per year, and have no second label. If the wine is not of high enough quality for Yquem, it is sold to another producer. According to David, LVMH, the current owner, is very supportive of quality and supports their strategy of not producing wine if it is not up to standards. For example, in 1992, there was no Yquem produced.
Winemaking: grapes are first pressed in a pneumatic press where 80% of the juice is received. They then are moved to a basket press where the other 20% -- usually the consistency of syrup – is harvested. The juice is then put in 100% new oak where it ferments for 2 weeks using natural yeast – but they may add selected if it doesn’t take off. All 28 parcels are fermented separately. Fermentation is done when the wine reaches 14% alcohol and 130 gpl sugar. At that point SO2 is added. David said oxidation is not a problem because the grapes are already oxidized when they are harvested.
The wine is blended in April in a vat, and then put back into barrel. It is kept in barrel for a total of 3 years, and during that time they always keep the glass bungs on top so they can watch for re-fermentation. If this happens, more SO2 is added. The wine is also racked every 3 months, and topped. It is fined with gelatin and filtered before bottling. The maximum SO2 is 350. He said that generally the final ph is 3.8 with an acid of around 6.5. 80% of the wine is exported.
We were only allowed to taste one wine – the 2005 Ch. D’Yquem, which was a pale yellow color with a white rim and a nose of honey and dried apricots. On the palate, I received the same, but also fresh peach and some marmalade. It had a nice acid and a med++ finish with a rounded mid-palate that was pleasing. The wine seemed very well balanced. Indeed, when I asked David what set Yquem apart from its competitors, he said it was their specific terrior that provided the “Yquem balance.”