For many years I have wondered about the true value of a dessert wine that is often displayed behind glass in some of the better wine shops I have visited. Could Chateau d’Yquem really be worth the price, which ranges from several hundred to many thousands of dollars, depending on the vintage? Moreover, what does it taste like?
The thought that it could be a sad occasion that would allow me the privilege of opening a bottle and sipping its contents never crossed my mind.
Chateau d’Yquem (de-KEM) is a Sauternes, located in the southern area of Bordeaux known as Graves. In the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 it was designated as Premier Cru Superieur, or superior first growth, and was the only Sauternes vineyard to earn the rating. Nearly 160 years later it remains in high demand, selling for pretty crazy prices.
The wine, typically honey gold in colour (but can age to a darker brown and still remain drinkable), is complex and concentrated, with a desirable acidity that keeps the sweetness in balance. That sweetness comes as the result of grapes being affected by botrytis, the “noble rot” that dessicates the fruit and intensifies flavours.
Chateau d’Yquem has been a vineyard since at least 1711 and was passed through marriage when a d’Yquem mademoiselle married Count Louis-Amedee de Lur-Saluces. The Count died three years later and his young wife focused her energy on improving the estate. The Sur-Saluces name remains on the wine labels to this day.
Chateau d’Yquems caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who considered it France’s best wine. He ordered 250 bottles of the 1784 vintage for himself, and purchased more for George Washington.
The balance of sweetness and acidity, along with winemaking practices, help ensure it lasts in the bottle. Robert Parker awarded one bottle a perfect 100 points in 1996. Stunningly, the bottle was of the 1811 vintage. Another bottle from that same vintage sold in 2011 for $117,000 US, the highest price ever paid for a white wine. In 2013 a 100-bottle vertical (100 bottles of consecutive vintages) was put up for sale privately for just short of $200,000 US, an insanely good value if you ask me.
About 10 years ago, Klaus and Rita Kuhnlein immigrated to the Creston Valley from Switzerland. Among the possessions they had shipped over was a split (or 375ml) bottle of 1989 Chateau d’Yquem. I got to know Klaus and Rita when he became a Rotarian, and we later would be part of an informal wine club here in Creston. He often spoke about that bottle of Sauternes.
Two years ago Klaus was struck by pancreatic cancer and had a near-miraculous recovery. After a harsh series of treatments his health returned and the cancer was no longer to be found. For the next year he and Rita enjoyed every minute of what he described as a gift of life. Occasionally, he spoke of opening the bottle. Earlier this winter he visited my office and said he and Rita wanted to share it with my wife and I, and that he was looking for a source of pate de foie gras, or goose liver sausage, which is considered the classic pairing with Sauternes.
Within weeks his cancer returned with a vengeance and he valiantly entered into yet more treatments. The luck of this brilliant and eminently loveable man had run out, though. The treatments were having no effect and were stopped. He had a few more weeks at home, but in June he went into hospice to spend his last few days. We talked about many things, but not about the d’Yquem. He had given Rita instructions, she was to share the bottle with Angela and I.
Recently, on a Tuesday evening, we made the drive to their home on a mountainside, bringing with us a mutual friend and an assortment of goodies, including pate de foie gras I bought on a trip to Calgary. The four of us opened a bottle of red wine and sat around the table, chatting and snacking.
Then I opened the lightly chilled 1989 Chateau d’Yquem and poured the golden liquid into small glasses. We made toasts to Klaus and to friendships and passed around the pate as we sipped.
The wine was spectacularly pure—a sip would suggest that a teaspoon of honey had just entered one’s mouth, but the expected thick sweetness didn’t materialize. Perfectly balanced with just a hint of acidity, it had a light, ethereal quality that made me think it was somehow destined for the heavens. Hints of pineapple, flowers, vanilla, apricot, peach and spices were tantalizing subtle, and the wine remains as fresh as if was made last year. I have no doubt this would be a vintage that if well cared for will last a century.
It was a great privilege to drink from this bottle. Of course we would have much preferred that we were able to share it with Klaus, but our evening with Rita and that Chateau d’Yquem will serve as a reminder that we should not take our own mortality for granted, that we should seize the moments as they are presented to us. And that we should treasure the memories of a wonderful friend.