A Dinner with Chateau d’Yquem

Yquem can complement any course

Apprehension is not often associated with the wines of Château d'Yquem. This famous and historic estate produces some of the most coveted sweet wines in the world. Some argue that it is Bordeaux's single greatest wine. To drink it is a luxury; and to drink it in the company of Yquem's charming winemaker, Sandrine Garbay, is a privilege. Yet at the prospect of a four-course dinner paired solely with the wines of Yquem I confess I did feel apprehension. After all, even if individual food pairings were successful, wouldn't a series of these sweet wines soon become cloying? Of course, my misgivings were misplaced. But how exactly did it work?

The dinner began with Yquem’s dry wine “Y” from the 2010 vintage. Readers who are expecting a wine similar to a white Graves will certainly be surprised by this blend of equal parts Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, aged on its lees in oak (a third of which is new). An exotic nose of passion fruit and pink grapefruit gives way to a rich and silky palate; and while this full-bodied white weighs in at 15% alcohol, it is anything but corpulent, with well-balanced acidity preserving its freshness. The richness of this wine paired well with the sweetness of pan-fried scallops, and would complement langoustines and other shellfish effectively. While “Y” is certainly leader of the pack, other Sauternes and Barsac estates, like Château Doisy-Daëne, are producing dry whites with an appealing exuberance that makes them worthy of attention.

“Y”, however, was to be the only dry wine of the evening. We moved on to Yquem’s grand vin from 2008. Exhibiting a beautiful nose of white flowers and tangerine, this wine is intense, vibrant and fresh on the palate, without a trace of the chewy sugary sweetness that can make young Sauternes oppressive. This wine was paired with slow-roast belly pork, with a nod to the pork and sweet wine pairings of Germany and Alsace, and again worked well, as Mme. Garby agreed. The freshness of the wine cut through the richness of the pork, and though this partnership would have little success with richer and older vintages of Yquem, it was well-suited to the 2008.

Indeed, 2008 is a vintage that illustrates the importance of Yquem’s unique assets: a well-drained and superbly situated terroir, and the resources to make extremely rigorous grape-by-grape selections that other properties simply cannot afford to emulate. Thanks to these advantages, even in difficult years like 2008 Yquem can still produce exceptional wine; and while the 2008 will certainly develop in bottle for several decades, it is already surprisingly approachable. In its marriage of lightness and intensity it was reminiscent of the Yquem’s 1955, the first wine from this property I ever tasted. Importantly, it is great fun to drink.

A very different vintage, 1996, followed, accompanying a course of Comté cheese. This wine, while still young, was more developed, with a nose of ripe stone fruit, crème brûlée, and toasted nuts-characteristics that worked well with the cheese. The 1996 is certainly a candidate for long-term ageing, as it clearly has the potential to make a much more expressive showing than it is at present. When it does reach its peak, I suspect the 1996 may surpass the 1983 Yquem, the wine that concluded our dinner. 1983 was a great vintage for Sauternes, and Yquem produced a wine with amazing intensity and depth of botrytis. Marmalade, apricots, and crème brûlée explode from the glass, and on the palate this wine is exuberantly expansive. The 1983 Yquem is unquestionably a great wine, but am I right to identify higher volatile acidity in comparison with other vintages?

This dinner demonstrated to me that Yquem can complement any course in a meal-albeit only if the menu is devised with care. And it also impressed me with a sense of Yquem’s strong identity: 2008, 1996 and 1983 are very different vintages, but they were clearly, in a more ultimate sense, the same wine. Many châteaux claim a unique personality for their wines, but it is seldom so manifest in the glass. Impeccable balance and unobtrusive sweetness are, for me, hallmarks of this estate. Sandrine Garby’s first vintage was the 1998, and it seems certain that under her deft direction the high esteem in which this historic property is held will continue to be well-deserved.

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