Wed 24 Apr 2013

A Tasting of Château d’Yquem


This was the Society workshop that many had been waiting for – a tasting of what is reputed to be the best sweet wine in the world, Château d’Yquem, hosted by The Society’s buyer for Bordeaux, Joanna Locke MW.

A group of 48 happy members tasted their way through eight vintages of Yquem, starting with 2003 and finishing with the 1954. I must confess at this point that I had never been lucky enough to try Château d’Yquem before. I’d heard so much about this liquid gold that I was slightly apprehensive that it might not live up to the hype that surrounds it. However, I was not disappointed. Even in ‘lesser’ vintages, the sheer quality was apparent.

Château d’Yquem tasting

Château d’Yquem was recognised as being pretty special in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, which saw the creation of a ranking system based on the wines market price at the time. Awarded the status of ‘premier grand cru superieur’, Château d’Yquem continues to be recognised as producing the best dessert wine in the world.

Though sold in 1999 to the luxury goods company LVMH, Yquem is still managed by the family and in 1998 Sandrine Garbay was appointed as cellar manager – a rather daring move in a very male-dominated world perhaps, and one which has proved to be a success.

The greatest vintages are those which have been affected by noble rot, a rather unattractive mould which leads to a biochemical process in which the volume of water in the grapes is reduced, leading to a loss of water and a concentration of sugar, whilst retaining the high acidity that gives the wines their freshness and stops them from being leaden on the palate. Unlike other properties in Sauternes who pick whole bunches affected by noble rot, Château d’Yquem pride themselves on picking the grapes individually; the must is then fermented in 100% new oak barrels for 36 months.

As with any great wine there is a lot of vintage variation with the wines of Château d’Yquem: the levels of residual sugar vary, as does the colour, particularly if the weather was warm towards harvest. There are also, as became evident during the workshop, differences in style due to the quality and quantity of noble rot present in each vintage. Whilst some of the wines showed better than others and we all had our own favourites, which of course all differed, this workshop was an amazing opportunity to taste this world-renowned wine. At the prices some of these wines now command, this is quite possibly the only way I would be able to try such treats.

The wines:

Y de Yquem, 2000
Château d’Yquem’s dry white was included in this tasting as a little ‘extra’. This was an interesting wine, reminiscent of white Rioja in style. It is a wine of two halves – the first round of sauvignon and semillon to go into the blend were picked early to retain their crisp acidity and primary fruit character, then after the grapes had been picked for their sweet wine, a second round of late-picked, fully ripe semillon was added to the blend to give the wine added body and richness. Incredibly complex, with some citrus, white-peach and pineapple fruit and nutty walnut and caramel notes (partly from the oak ageing, partly from some oxidation), long length and fresh acidity. I could see this being a bit of a marmite wine – you either love it or you hate it. I loved it.

Château d’Yquem, 2003
2003 was a plentiful, highly regarded but atypical vintage with a very warm summer producing super-ripe grapes. The grapes were not affected by noble rot, but achieved their concentration of sugars due to dehydration, being left on the vine after the vine had started to go into its winter dormancy. As such, the vintage was picked in one pass through the vineyard (the average vintage takes six passes to pick all the botrytised grapes). This gives a wine which has a purity that you don’t sometimes get with botrytis, but also lacks the complexity botrytis can give a wine.
The 2003 had a mid-gold colour, with an intense nose with notes of honey, blossom, peach, apricot, creamy citrus and nuts. On the palate the wine was intensely sweet but beautifully balanced. Honey, toast and nuts, with cream, apricot and peach. Clean and refreshing, with high acidity, high sugar levels (147g/l of residual sugar) and typically for Sauternes, highish alcohol (14%).

Château d’Yquem, 2001
Considered to be a great Sauternes and Barsac vintage. The botrytis was prevalent this year and took hold quickly, ensuring healthier grapes that were not affected by undesirable grey rot, and a faster concentration of sugars in the grapes.
Again pale gold in colour with notes of honey, toast, peach and apricot, hazelnut and a touch of the medicine cabinet (a good thing: an indicator that there has been botrytis) on the nose. The palate had all of the above, with great complexity and very long length. Intensely sweet (150g/l residual sugar), beautifully complex and utterly balanced, this was perhaps the star wine of the workshop? The 2001 is still very young – the French consider it to be infanticide to drink Sauternes younger than 10 years old!

Château d’Yquem, 1999
Golden colour with some peach and apricot, creamy hazelnut and honey on the nose. Fresh acidity on the palate with marmalade notes and a little bit of bitter orange peel on the long finish. The quantities were small, and the quality good, though 1999 is not ranked amongst the best vintages. This wine is drinking well now.

Château d’Yquem, 1996
More old-fashioned in style, the 1996 does not have the reputation of other vintages and the quality is less consistent. It took five passes through the vineyards to pick the grapes for this vintage. With 122g/l of residual sugar, this wine lacks the fresh acidity present in the other vintages and is quite high-toned (has a lot of volatile acidity) in style. There is peach and apricot kernel here, with hints of mushroomy complexity (sign of botrytis).

Château d’Yquem, 1988
Not a heavily botrytised year – botrytis arrived late and was not consistent, therefore the wine has more purity than in more heavily botrytised years.
The wine has a deeper, more golden colour than previous wines. Brown sugar, golden syrup and honey on the nose, with a little bit of volatile acidity which adds complexity. There is very fresh acidity, with the usual creamy peach and apricot fruits, some walnut and floral notes, and excellent length. This is a beautifully balanced wine.

Château d’Yquem, 1986
1986 was made in the same style as 1996, but the noble rot was more consistent and therefore the resulting wine is much more complex. In addition to the peach, apricot, walnut and honey and fresh acidity, a few of us picked up a slight blue-cheese note, with the medicine cabinet lurking in the background. This wine had the second-lowest residual sugar levels of the workshop with just 97g/l.

Château d’Yquem, 1981
The property had high hopes for the 1981 vintage, which were unfortunately ultimately unfounded as the vintage only proved to be of modest quality and now lacks the freshness that other vintages displayed. Deep gold in colour the wine has the creamy, nutty peach and apricot flavours of the other wines, with some hints of blue cheese and good length.

Château d’Yquem, 1954
1954 was picked in two passes through the vineyard. A golden, tawny colour with nutty walnut and slightly oxidised notes, the 1954 is (unsurprisingly) starting to take on aged characteristics rather like a tawny port. In spite of its more advanced age, the 1954 still shows remarkable freshness, great length and has a lovely complexity. The residual sugar in this wine is 85g/l. A vintage in decline? Perhaps, but a real treat to have the opportunity to taste.

Emma Howat
Tastings & Events Co-ordinator


  1. Steve Webb says:

    Interesting vintages! The 2003 tasted at the chateau a couple of weeks ago is undoubtedly the best Sauternes in that very hot vintage – surprisingly fresh and elegant.

    A request (to everyone) – please do not consider Yquem, or any other Sauternes, as dessert wine. The French do not drink it as such and, because of its incredible versatility with all sorts of food, we are all missing out if the myth is perpetuated. It’s brilliant on its own (before or after a meal), with canapes, with rich foods such as foie gras, with salty foods such as oysters or fried/roast chicken, with spicy food (e.g. Indian or Chinese) and, yes, with some desserts too.

    Ironically it is often hardest to get a good match with dessert as certain ages or styles of Sauternes do not match certain types of dessert very well. The difficulty comes from the mis-matching of sugar intensities – sweetness as a contrast to spiciness or richness is easier to get right.

  2. Alan Ford says:

    What a wonderful opportunity!

    I love Sauternes and Barsac and have a few cases of half-bottles, mostly premier crus: because it’s delicious, of course, and because they are affordable, with excellent value for money when one realises the work that goes into producing such great wines.

    I’ve managed to buy a half-bottle of d’Yquem, 2000, because it’s not said to be a good vintage and consequently came just within my financial range. I’m pleased to note the 2000 vintage in Sauternes is now rated as 5/10, after being 4/10, on the Society’s Vintage Guide. Does this mediocre vintage mean I should drink it now or, being d’Yquem, should keep it?

    • Martin Brown says:

      Hi Alan – by fortunate coincidence we treated ourselves the 2000 Yquem (from 75cl) at my wedding last November. It is drinking well but there is no hurry – indeed, I suspect it will continue to improve for another 5 years or so. It is not a profound wine as Yquem can be, but it is utterly delicious and a great testament to both the estate and the hard work it put in during what was a very difficult vintage in Sauternes. Hope this is of use.

      • Alan Ford says:

        Hi Martin,
        Thank you very much for your response. It must have been a wonderful wedding! All the very best to you and your bride!

        It’s very reassuring to know the 2000 Yquem will continue to develop and is not on its last legs.

        Thanks again,

        Alan F

      • Martin Campion says:


        You have impeccable taste. I recall Serena Sutcliffe had good things to say about the 2000 after a comprehensive tasting of Yquem from several decades. I bought a bottle on the strength of that and am in no hurry to drink it.

        My experience of Yquem is not as comprehensive as I would like, but of the few vintages I’ve drunk over the last few years, I’d have to say the best for current drinking is the 1988. It was magnificent in its youth and is now quite sublime. When I think how relatively it cost on release ……

        Has the Society considered stocking Ygrec? I gather the 2011, for example, is brilliant.


        • Martin Brown says:

          Too kind, Martin! Thanks for your comment and do hope you enjoy your 2000 as much as I did when the time comes.
          I’ve asked Jo Locke MW about Ygrec and while it is a wine that she does taste, she finds it tends not to offer particularly good value for money vs the various dry white Bordeaux she buys.
          On that front incidentally, we were particularly impressed with the 2011 ‘G’ de Guiraud, which is available for £11.95 currently… should you be interested 🙂
          Best regards,

  3. Sophie Nicholls says:

    Great article, but can you say a bit more about what you mean by ‘volatile acidity’ vs ‘fresh acidity’?

    • Emma Howat says:

      Thanks very much and sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

      Total acidity is a measurement of all the acids present in a wine – the most important of which are malic and tartaric acid. These help to fix the colour of the wine, as well as providing freshness and balance. If the levels of total acidity were low, especially in a sweet wine such as Sauternes, the wine would appear flabby and sit on the tongue like a wet blanket – most unpleasant. The sweetness and the acidity in sweet wines should balance each other out making the wine appear fresh and not cloying – so if you were to have that level of acidity in a dry wine, or that level of sweetness without the acidity, the wine would appear completely out of balance.

      ‘Volatile acidity’ is caused by yeast and bacteria and can occur as a result of vinegar flies, contaminated equipment or barrels in the winery, too much oxygen, not enough sulphur dioxide, and/or a whole host of other things. The primary source of volatile acidity is acetic acid, and if the VA is too high it is seen as a fault and can make the wine taste thin and sour. Wines such as Sauternes commonly have some level of VA due to the way in which they are made (noble rot) and at low levels VA can actually benefit the wine, giving it more lift, complexity and interest. My way of spotting more elevated levels of VA in a wine is because it makes my nose twitch and if the levels are really high it makes me sneeze!

  4. George Lush says:

    I have only tasted Yquem three times. Once when the Shell office in Bristol closed and we all went to Harvey’s restaurant for lunch. Lots of people were ordering triple Tia Marias etc and I asked my boss if I could order a half bottle of Yquem for the table (about the same price as 36 triples and he said yes). The story becomes hazy. One person “says” he ordered another bottle of white wine but Yquem was produced and served. The eventual bill for the Yquem was much more than the food and there were endless investigations. The 2nd bottle someone gave me and the third time was in London at a Loss Adjuster’s annual dinner. He never bought anyone so much as a cup of coffee but every year gave a dinner with interesting wines. With the meat course he served a Bordeaux in one glass and a BV cabernet in the other. At the end of the meal 6 bottles of Yquem were opened and placed on a serving table; I could not believe my luck. Few touched it except me and I can say that it does not underwrite a bright morning. I am 70 in a month so that will make a fourth. On the basis that a £ saved is a £ wasted (after you are 70) any suggestions as to a good year would be a bonus.

    • Mark says:

      George – some great little anecdotes re your experience of Yquem. One of the many wonderful things I have found about wine (and I am 30 years behind you) is that the stories that surround one’s consumption mean as much as the wine itself.

      For example I note that you gloss over the bottle you were given, whereas the unexpected 6 bottles at the loss adjuster’s dinner make a story!

      I have so far been privileged to drink Yquem on only one or two occasions (1998 and 2000 – I think). My only advice would be try to find the oldest wine you can afford or source; I increasingly find older wines to offer more interest (which I appreciate might be for non-taste reasons).

      Thanks for sharing and happy drinking!

  5. Martin How says:

    I first tasted Yquem in 1976 aged 21, when working at Oddbins (Farringdon Rd) as part of a vertical tasting of Yquem and also Ch Lafite-Rothschild.

    The Yquem was extraordinary ranging from 1970 to 1955. The ’55 was extraordinary – like honey and full of noble rot, the ’67 was pale yellow and very intense. Sadly I have no tasting notes and don’t remember much about the other vintages but the memories of these two remain intense even now. I have tasted Yquem a number of times since and it remains a step apart from anything else.

    The Ch Lafite was also extraordinary, but did not quite match up to Yquem. It seemed thin in comparison!

  6. Janet Gold says:

    I have only once had the pleasure of drinking a Yquem. We had French friends who visited their holiday cottage in Great Bernera, in the Outer Hebrides. During their visits, we would have dinner with them. They always served good wines, which made the occasions very enjoyable. On one occasion, sadly the last, at the end of the meal, they served a white wine with a ‘Rousillon’ label. This puzzled me, but when it was poured, I knew at once that is was a very special wine and that Nody, our host was playing tricks. He asked me to guess the true wine and I, fortunately, correctly identified it as a Sauternes. He then revealed the true label- Yquem! I can still remember the wonderful flavour and colour of the ‘liquid gold’. I kept the bottle as a momento, but unfortunately, my mother put it in the re-cycling on one of her visits, so I don’t remember the vintage – at least I have the taste memory!

  7. John Westbrooke says:

    I have drunk Yquem only twice. Once, back in the 1950’s which charmed me in a way I still recall. Back in about 1964, I found a bottle of 1958 Yquem which the “merchant” said would be “too old for a white wine” I bought it for £1 15shillings – unfortunately there was only one.
    I kept this, safely cosseted, until last November. My second son demanded that we should drink this “before I died”, as I am now 81. We arranged a dinner party, first opening a bottle of Chateau Latour which was far too old, and had faded to nothing. Drinkable, but tasteless. Never mind.
    The Yquem, however, having turned a dark caramel colour, was perfect. The sweetness and acidity remained in balance. The nose was suberb, and the finish lingered for a VERY long time.

    Two days later, it was still superb, and three special friends were allowed to help me finish it off. A memory to last.

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