Château d’Yquem

Decanter Masterclass

20th November 2004

Speaker: Pierre Lurton, President of Château d’Yquem

This was Pierre Lurton’s first attempt presenting Yquem in English, and whether it was the slightly imperfect command of English or a mischievous spirit (or both), he came out with some wonderful infelicitous remarks on the individual wines.   Perhaps the best was after he had mentioned a dish served at d’Yquem: a poulet de Bresse with a d’Yquem reduction: some present ran with this idea until Lurton admitted “Yes, it’s a really good cooking wine!”   He then realised what he’d said and hastened to add that he hoped there were no journalists in the audience …

Lurton is clearly enjoying his job: “I have the esprit of curiosité in Yquem,” he said in his best David-Suchet-Poirot-ese.   Of other vintages not shown here, he described 2004 as “a very academic vintage”.   His favourite d’Yquem is the 1921 (!!!), which perhaps goes to explain why the 1999 is being offered so cheaply (though there is another reason – see below!) and why d’Yquem is being sold en primeur: he has a 1921 habit to fund!

Lurton said that he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams running either d’Yquem or Cheval Blanc, and certainly not both.  When he took over Cheval Blanc in 1991, it was gently suggested to him that "Lurton" was perhaps not the best name to be associated with Cheval Blanc and maybe he should use his mother’s name.  Perhaps not: his mother’s name is Lafite.

Y 2002
We started with the wine that, by its name, could almost be Welsh: d’Yquem’s dry white Y (Ygrec).  Lurton has changed the profile of the vinification of Ygrec, using a larger proportion of the thicker skinned sauvignon blanc.  The wine spends 2 years in 100% new French oak barrique.
A pale gold appearance.  A strikingly good nose: quite rich and curiously buttery, and with a certain nuttiness and toast.  A ripe rich attack gives way to a full round palate with nice depth.  A very good, attractive wine, undoubtedly, but I can’t imagine going out of my way to seek it out.

Château d’Yquem 1999
A bright glossy mid gold; the nose is intensely floral, orangey and with a slightly confected note.  Quite light, yet curiously vigorous on the palate.  But this is a wine that, as a Sauternes, let alone d’Yquem, fails at the first hurdle: they forgot to put the botrytis in.  Very disappointing, avoidable, and surprising it was made at all.  But they presumably need the money.
Certainly there was a very big sales push from Pierre Lurton for this wine, though he was – most of the time – on a completely different wine to us.  In the middle of the sales pitch, however, his guard slipped a little and he described it as having “very fruity juice” (perhaps not the best recommendation for the top Sauternes) and I could have sworn I heard him say “bland”.

Château d’Yquem 1998
”Rudeness yet finesse” said Pierre Lurton.
An almost identical colour to the 1999, but more yellow and a tiny shade darker.  Very full botrytis with citrus notes on the nose; more integrated and much more attractive than the 1999, but what really stands out over the 1999 is that this clearly has much more botrytis.  A very elegant attack; really good depth and very good balance.  This is really a vastly better wine than the 1999.

Château d’Yquem 1997
1997 was one of the earliest harvests ever in Sauternes.  This has a slightly limpid, duller deeper gold appearance.  A much lighter nose and more closed reminiscent mainly of the caramel liquid you get in the classic dessert trolley oranges in caramel.  Very lively and forward on the palate, but this really lacks the elegance I would expect and require of a wine of the standing of d’Yquem.

Château d’Yquem 1996
The last vintage with M. Latrice (?????) as cellarmaster.
A much more gold colour.  The nose is excellent – elegant, orange flower water and candied grapefruit peel – huge depths: fascinating.  Very, very attractive on the palate.  Lots of depth.  Lovely character.  But tails off a bit on the finish and feels shorter than it should be.

Château d’Yquem 1994
Clearly not one of Pierre Lurton’s favourites: “not a very complex wine,” he said, with “lots of sweetness and fatness”.  Well, he’s right.
A deepish gold with a touch of brassiness.  Seems a simpler nose and a touch closed; maybe a bit more botrytis than the 1996?  Much lighter on the attack with higher levels of acidity than the 1996.  Very light and a bit hollow.  Dull – at least it’s dull as a top Sauternes.

Château d’Yquem 1991
A year with “a terrible climatologie” said Pierre Lurton, though of Cheval Blanc.
A bright mid gold colour.  A rich apricotty citrus nose, turning a bit buttery.  On the palate, it’s fairly classic stuff.  Very good balance; a hint of manzanilla  Really quite spicy on the finish.

Château d’Yquem 1990
“Not a wine to keep a long, long, long time,” said Pierre Lurton, and harking back to Alexandre Lur-Saluces, “there will be no appointment in one hundred years”.  About another 20 years is all he believes the 1990 d’Yquem has in it.
A mid gold and a touch dull: the colour of crème caramel.  Quite an attractive, elegant nose: delicate and floral, though a bit dull.  Attractive on the palate with markedly exotic flavours.  Lovely balance.  This is curiously savoury, with salt and spice on the finish, and feels a bit oxidised.
A second glass from another bottle was much better: still a touch of oxidation and salty nuttiness, but this has a much nicer nose and is much more attractive on the palate.

Château d’Yquem 1988
A deepish gold.   The nose is light and elegant though giving very little away – perhaps some nectarine skins and diluted marmalade.  Immediately attractive on the palate with good weight and lovely balance.  Brighter acid feeling on the finish.

Château d’Yquem 1986
I had three glasses of this, from three different bottles:
1) A deep, teak-ish gold.   At first this has no nose at all, but then it developed pretty classic TCA characteristics.  Totally and utterly corked.  Worryingly only three of us at the back picked up on this.   Not tasted.
2) Just slightly paler than the first pour.   A rather dull flat nose with just some bits of botrytis.  Flat, unbalanced with lots of acid.  Pretty unpleasant stuff.
3) A mid-teak-ish gold.  Oh, good, this one’s proper healthy stuff.  A rather nice peachy citrus nose.  Really rather nice on the palate.   Well integrated and holds up throughout the palate; complex and with good depth.

All in all, a bit of a treat of a tasting, but scarcely very impressive.   I got very little impression, from the wines that is, of why d’Yquem is so special and not even that is really at all superior to the best of other Sauternes and Barsac estates.   So, a bit of a myth-buster for me, not to mention a potential money saver.

Outside, in the walkround tasting, Château La Tour Blanche were showing their 1999, which I tasted immediately after the d’Yquem vertical.   This was a mid gold, with a really lovely botrytis nose, heavily redolent of beeswax.   Really lovely on the palate, quite vigorous in its youth, but still lots of depth and interest.   A really interesting savoury note on the finish, followed by excellent length. Superior in most respects to d'Yquem!

Andrew Stevenson