VERY FEW WINES CAN BOAST OF HAVING BEEN A FAVOURITE OF BOTH THOMAS JEFFERSON AND GEORGE WASHINGTON, SAVOURED BY A FRENCH ASTRONAUT ORBITING THE EARTH, AND ONE OF THE FIRST WESTERN BRANDS TO BE INTRODUCED TO JAPAN BY EMPEROR MEIJI, WHO WAS SEDUCED BY ITS UNIQUE CHARACTER.
Considered by many to be the world’s greatest sweet wine, Château d’Yquem has uncompromisingly championed its winemaking expertise for over 400 years. Today, its traditions blend with an ardent desire for continuity and innovation.
The product of a rich history interwoven with the ambitions of French and English kings, Château d’Yquem is a proud participant in the fascinating history of the Kingdom of France and its long winemaking tradition. In many respects, connoisseurs consider Sauternes wines the classic French sweet wine. And yet, the estate that now produces the only Sauternes wine deserving of the Premier Cru Supérieur appellation could easily have been under British rule if the machinations of 14th and 15th century politics had turned out differently, and the Aquitaine region had remained the preserve of English kings.
Back then, the Château d’Yquem of today was only a dream, but the fertile soil of the Bordelaise region and the ancestral expertise of artisans in the western regions of France were already creating a foundation for what would become the Yquem winery.
The origins of the estate go back to 1593, when Jacques Sauvage, a local nobleman, was granted feudal tenure over Yquem. In the years that followed, the Sauvage family began building the Château and creating the parcels of land that would eventually become the vineyard we know today. At this point, the Sauvage family did not actually own the land. It was not until 1711, over one hundred years later, that Léon de Sauvage d’Yquem, a direct descendent of Jacques Sauvage, was able to buy the estate. To support the army during the War of Spanish Succession, King Louis XIV offered noble status to French notables in exchange for the purchase of land (enabling the king to finance the military campaigns that had taken a toll on public finances). A turning point in the estate’s history, this marked a turn in quality for the Château’s production, improving from generation to generation.
The product we know today is thanks to the hard work of Léon de Sauvage d’Yquem’s great-granddaughter, Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage d’Yquem. In 1788, the last descendant of the Sauvage family became a widow when she was only 20 years old. She began managing the estate just before the onset of the French Revolution.
A vocal opponent of the excesses of the revolution when it came to noble families, she was imprisoned twice. Against tremendous odds, she managed to prove that her great-grandfather had indeed purchased the property and, when the dust finally settled, retook control of the estate, turning profitability and developing the international reputation that it continues to enjoy. Upon Françoise Joséphine’s death, her grandson, Romain-Bertrand de Lur Saluces, became the managing director of the family estate. Under his stewardship, the Maison d’Yquem earned the Premier Cru Supérieur appellation in 1855. This recognition of the family’s efforts lead to it achieving greater glory, and being celebrated by the greatest connoisseurs.
In addition to the amazing talents and passion of the people who so carefully produce wine of such exceptional quality, certain exterior factors also contributed to the rise of this divine nectar. The sweet wine of Yquem benefits from the presence of a fungus that, for the vast majority of wine-growers, is a problem. Called Botrytis cinerea, this fungus is capable of ruining entire harvests. However, thanks to the region’s special climate, this parasite in fact helps develop the aromatic properties of the grapes. The common name for this fungus is “noble rot,” and it is so desirable that when the grapes are harvested, they are gathered individually, by hand, to ensure that only those with Botrytis cinerea are picked. This parasite is what gives Yquem wines their characteristic sweetness, along with ample levels of acidity.
Although having the ideal climate for noble rot helps enhance the grapes used to make Château d’Yquem wines, it would mean nothing without the expertise of the family’s winemakers. From the time of the Sauvage family to the era of the de Lur Saluces family, this knowledge has been handed down and refined with time. Wine-grower, Bertrand de Lur Saluces, the grandson of Romain-Bertrand, was uncompromising in his insistence on the quality of his wine. He would simply exclude all the grapes that he deemed substandard, even if this meant that some years the Château did not produce a vintage. The financial consequences of these nonproducing years were considerable, but the importance of preserving the wine’s exceptional quality and the estate’s credibility have always prevailed over pecuniary considerations.
This long-term vision has enabled the brand to establish itself as an extraordinary, highly valued luxury product. The work continues to this day, carried on by Pierre Lurton (president and CEO) and Sandrine Garbay (cellar master), who do not hesitate to make difficult decisions to ensure a consistently superior level of production. For them, there is no compromise, as was the case for their predecessors, who made this estate into a gem amongst major wineries. Without a doubt, this single-minded approach is what has made, and what continues to make, Yquem the epitome of luxury. The only thing that remains to discover is what new summits the Château d’Yquem brand will bring to lovers of Sauternes.