Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
Aspen Times Weekly
The nectar of the Gods – no doubt you’ve heard the expression before.
What it refers to likely depends upon your definition of nectar and what gods you pray to. But for just about anybody who has ever tasted the wines of Chateau d’Yquem, it is obvious that the gods, any gods, would find these sweet wines to be sublime.
In a past column, we talked about Semillon, the white grape that is indigenous to Bordeaux and is largely used in small quantities as a blending grape to add richness to other varietals, most generally Sauvignon Blanc.
But for centuries, Semillon has been prized in its home region, near the village of Sauternes, as a grape that can be the dominant partner in a marriage with Sauvignon Blanc and, when touched in a specific way by nature, can produce the most luxurious, sweetest, and, in many ways, most intriguing white wines on the planet.
Of all the wines made in Sauternes (pronounced saw-turn), those produced by Chateau d’Yquem (pronounced dee-kem) are the most storied, the most prized and, by extension, the most expensive. Located in the southern part of Bordeaux in Graves, the history of the estate parallels the history of France over the last 900 years.
Ownership of the estate has changed hands from the soon-to-be-coronated King Louis VII in the 1100s to the British following the 100 Years War in the 1400s, and back to the French aristocracy in the 1500s. It was ravaged by the effects of the French Revolution in the 18th century and, in the 20th Century, it was taken over by the high-end goods conglomerate LVMH in 1996. It is hard for Americans to relate to a property that has nearly a millennium of history, but through all of that time Chateau d’Yquem has held a place of prestige in the hills above Bordeaux.
In our history, Thomas Jefferson came to revere the wines made by Chateau d’Yquem soon after the signing of our Declaration of Independence. While on a visit to Bordeaux as the American Envoy to France in the 1780s, he wrote that the wines produced in the region were “the best white wine of France and the best of it is made by Monsieur de Lur-Saluces,” owner of the Chateau at the time. So impressed was Jefferson that he purchased a couple of hundred bottles of the 1784 vintage to bring back to Monticello, his home in northern Virginia.
In 1855, when the French designated vineyards throughout France by their supposed quality, the chateau of Chateau d’Yquem was classified as a First Growth or a Premier Cru Superieur, the very highest designation awarded.
What makes the wines of Sauternes so special is not just the vineyards or the grapes, but the unique way in which they are treated in the vineyard. The sweet wines of Sauternes are a result of a process that subjects them to Botrytis cinerea, a mold that causes the grapes to shrivel on the vine and concentrates their sugars. They are harvested late in the year and fermented in oak barrels before they are blended with Sauvignon Blanc. While the blend varies year by year, the Semillon can make up as much as 80 percent of the blend.
Only 60-70,000 bottles of the nectar are produced annually and they are sold to both collectors and those who cherish the finer things in life. The bottlings of Chateau d’Yquem are noted for their ability to age gracefully and they are one of the longest-lived wines on earth. Wines that have been stored for more than 100 years have been opened and still share the treasures of the year they were bottled.
While Sauternes wines are most often thought of as dessert wines – they are, after all, the color of honey and impart a sweet, sticky flavor – they are also excellent wines to serve with cheese and, of course, foie gras. To sip a fine Sauternes, especially one from Chateau d’Yquem, is an experience that should be given one’s full attention. A thousand years of history have gone into making what will be, for any wine drinker, a sweet memory.
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