I have a sweet tooth.
Drinks of choice remain sugary concoctions such as Midori, Pimms & lemonade, Amarula, Dr Pepper, Coca Cola.
Yes, really. No, I’m not fifteen.
More accepted in adult circles is my deep and abiding love for dessert wines including honeyed French seducers Monbazillac, Coteaux du Layon and the various Muscats, aromatic American Black Muscat, forceful Iberian Muscatels, refreshing German Beernauslese Rieslings and don’t even get me started on the heavenly Spanish treat that is Pedro Ximénez! (I’m yet to try Tokaji but it’s on my wish list.)
It will therefore come as no surprise to you that I’m rather an avid fan of Sauternes.
Usually, I am very content to drive Pete around the vineyards of France or South Africa, on holiday, encouraging him to try and buy as I happily look on. But I have fond memories of the role reversal in Sauternes, France and our visits to a number of local producers, including the charming elderly lady who decided Pete was the spitting image of her grandson-in-law and that this merited an extra warm welcome and prolonged tasting session!
But I’d never tried a Château d’Yquem.
(Not least because a bottle of the precious liquid usually retails for hundreds of pounds!)
Let alone enjoyed a side-by-side comparison of four Château d’Yquem vintages at once!
So when my friend Leonid at Bob Bob Ricard proposed such a tasting, I was very quick indeed to sign up. Alongside the 2002, 2001, 1996 and 1983 Yquems we would also be treated to some suggested food pairings including blue cheese, fresh peaches and lobster linguine.
The £125 price tag may sound steep but when you take into account the normal cost of each bottle, not to mention the accompanying meal, it reveals itself as a bit of a bargain.
- Château d’Yquem 2002 sells for £119 a bottle at Bob Bob Ricard (and £310 a bottle at Alain Ducasse).
- Château d’Yquem 2001 sells for £266 a bottle at Bob Bob Ricard (and £750 a bottle at Apsleys).
- Château d’Yquem 1996 sells for £145 a bottle at Bob Bob Ricard (and £750 a bottle at Gordon Ramsay, Claridges).
- Château d’Yquem 1983 sells for £246 a bottle at Bob Bob Ricard (and £495 a bottle at Helene Darroze).
So it made a lot of sense to share the costs between 8 of us (Leonid and fellow BBR owner Richard, Patrick Carpenter, who lead the tutored tasting and 5 guests).
So what did I learn about the wine?
Sauternes is located in the Graves area of the Southern Bordeaux vineyards. Its distinctive dessert wine is made from the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grape varieties and the grapes have been affected by botrytis cinerea. In a suitable climate (humidity followed by dry heat), this fungus (also known as noble rot) attacks the grapes. Although it feeds on the sugar, it also breaks the skins of the grapes, causing evaporation of the water within them and thereby concentrating the sugar content significantly.
Château d’Yquem, considered to be the finest of the Sauternais wines, is the only one to merit the Premier Cru Supérieur classification.
What makes Château d’Yquem different?
Firstly, the site makes the grapes very susceptible to the essential noble rot fungus. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s height means that the morning mists leave Yquem before they clear from any other Sauternes vineyard, giving the Yquem grapes precious extra time in the sun and causing the grapes to ripen and shrivel further.
Why such high prices?
Producing Sauternes is an intensive process. Firstly, just in terms of volume, a single vine produces far less volume of wine than one used to make regular red or white drinking wine. Château d’Yquem vines produce even less volume of wine per vine than their Sauternes neighbours. Secondly, the picking must be done manually over a 6-8 week period during which individual grapes are picked from each bunch as and when they are considered ready. That’s a lot of labour! The exception (for Château d’Yquem) was 1983 when, very unusually, all the grapes shrivelled together, which allowed for one single picking!
How did it taste?
I was gratified, on blurting out “tree” as I first sipped the 2002 vintage, to learn that the wine is aged and fermented in 100% new oak, in small 225 litre barrels which allows the wine to take on flavours from the wood. The other predominant smell and flavour that came through for several of us was toast. I couldn’t detect the iodine/ sea smell that Patrick picked up. I enjoyed the wine greatly, it had a delightful sweetness with lovely scent and flavour. 8/10
Although the smell had much in common with the 2002 vintage, the 2001 was far more honeyed, like a rich syrup. It’s additional sweetness and wonderful fruit flavours were delightful and I particularly loved it with the blue cheese. 10/10
Our third vintage had a much deeper amber colour than the rest. “Too orangey for crows”, I thought. Patrick immediately gave the perfect description of it’s predominant flavour – the “twang of marmalade aftertaste, like the pith, bitter”. For me, what also came through most strongly in this vintage was the “musty, dusty paper” aroma of the botrytis cinerea. Other comments that tickled my fancy were Richard’s “lion wee in the sun” and someone else’s “old man in a cardi”! Of the four, this was the most complex in terms of smells and flavours. 7/10
A much more subtle smell than the others – not a tired nose though, I did a direct comparison to the previous three, of which I still had some remaining. I didn’t love the taste either, I found this one too acidic. 4/10
It was only afterwards that Patrick explained to us about the varying sugar contents, with 2001 unsurprisingly the highest by a significant margin, followed by 2002 and 1996 at similar levels. Whilst he didn’t have a residual sugar level for the 1983, my tastebuds tell me it was quite a bit less than the others.
Isn’t it just typical of me that my favourite turns out to be the most expensive?
I didn’t know the prices or expert opinions on any of the vintages in advance but it comes as no surprise to read, in the Bob Bob Ricard wine menu, that “with 100 points from both Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator, the ‘perfect’ 2001 hardly needs an introduction.”
Some photos of the evening: