I can think of no other wine that stands quite so solitarily and quite so proudly as undisputed leader of its category. With champagne, for example, for every fan of Moët’s Dom Pérignon there’s another who prefers Roederer’s Cristal, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame or Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. And with Bordeaux, who would declare Haut-Brion better or more celebrated than Lafite, Latour, Margaux or Mouton? And what of the so-called Super Seconds?
No, Château d’Yquem stands alone, untroubled by the competition, the undisputed top dog. The only Sauternes estate accorded Premier Cru Supérieur status, Château d’Yquem has no equal; it’s the sweet wine against which all others are judged.
Owned by the noble Lur-Saluces family for more than 200 years, the estate was taken over by LVMH in the late Nineties, with Pierre Lurton arriving as managing director in 2004. The château and its 100 hectares lie in a blessed spot on a mix of four crucial soil types at the highest point in all Sauternes where, thanks to the proximity of the River Gironde and just the right amount of sunshine, rain, humidity and drying wind, creeping fog and mist weave their unfathomable alchemy to create the ideal conditions for noble rot to flourish on fully ripened grapes.
Sandrine Garbay, cellar master of Yquem for more than 20 years, was in London recently to launch the 2019 vintage, and she surprised many by serving this nectar as an apéritif.
‘It’s the perfect entry door to pleasure,’ she said, ‘and this is how we drink it at the château. Of course, we have it with puddings and cheeses too, but there’s no reason not to have it to start with, especially if it’s a young vintage.’
We lucky few got merrily stuck in before moving on to dinner and a glass or so of the estate’s dry white wine, Y d’Yquem. Although tasty, this didn’t make the earth move as much as the succeeding vintages of the sweet wine did, namely the 2017, 2007 and 1999. These remarkable wines showed Yquem’s arc of maturity perfectly, filled as they were with evolving barley sugar notes, butterscotch, honey and tarte tatin. Each was different and each glorious in its own way.
And we discovered one crucial thing: if you’re lucky enough to have some Yquem at your disposal, don’t wait for a special occasion to open it. The special occasion is opening it.
2016 Disznókó Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos (£57.95 per 50cl; Lea & Sandeman)
Known to Louis XIV as the wine of kings and king of wines, fine Tokajis such as this are Hungary’s gift to the world and one of the few wines to dare to rival Château d’Yquem. A complex mix of flavours including marmalade, honey, nuts, apricots and caramel are kept in check by a racy acidity, leaving the wine fabulously sweet and bracingly fresh.
2017 Vin de Constance (£55.90 per 50cl; Hedonism)
From Klein Constantia, South Africa, the sweet wine Sandrine Garbray likes to drink when she’s not drinking Yquem. Produced from Muscat de Frontignan, it’s the direct descendant of Constantia, the wine beloved of Napoleon, Baudelaire, Dickens and Jane Austen. Gloriously textured with citrus, spice, honey and creamy baked apples, it’s in stunning form and will only get better.
2019 Château d’Yquem (Berry Bros & Rudd)
The latest vintage of the most celebrated sweet wine in the world comes up for sale this spring and does not disappoint. The harvest was long, with grapes picked one by one, and the blend unique, with a higher proportion of Sauvignon Blanc than ever. The result is magnificent, with a mix of candied orange, barley sugar, honeyed nuts and saffron lasting for ever in the mouth.