Is Yquem the greatest of all wines? The château is certainly outstanding and no one who has seen a picture of it would have any trouble picking it out from afar, riding the crest of its 189 hectares of priceless manicured vineyards and surveying the neatly combed Sauternes landscape with magnificent hauteur. It would in fact be advisable to memorise an image of the château, because there are no road signs to Yquem that we could find, and the map – our map, at least – made it not at all clear from which side to approach. This should not be taken to indicate that Yquem is in any way unwelcoming. On the contrary, if you go through the appropriate channels the château is pleased to receive visitors.
“Yes, we are aware that there is an abundance of road signs to every other château around here,” a lady explained when we finally penetrated Yquem’s defences, pushing our bikes up a rough track between the vines and puffing in to the courtyard only 15 minutes late, which is pretty good by our standards. “But as soon as we put one up, someone steals it.”
The Bordelais are a posh crowd, and our guide Anne wore a smart claret coloured suit and spoke the language of Racine with cut glass precision. A leading lady on the boards of the Comédie Française could not have done better, but it was not clear enough for one half of the Belgian couple with whom we shared our visit; her husband had to translate Anne’s beautiful words into a porridgey Flemish spittle that she could understand. It seemed a violation, like translating Mozart into rap.
Many good things come to those who wait, and Anne made us wait for a taste of the precious nectar. Through spotless cellars filled with immaculate barrels we walked, absorbing much historical and technical detail about grape varietals, fossilised oyster beds, peculiarities of terroir and the noble rot. Through many stages the quantity is reduced and reduced, in a quest for concentrated quality. The vines are cut low and the grapes allowed to shrink, until one plant produces one precious glass of wine. All 6 tasters – 4 men and 2 women – must agree that it is worthy of the great name, if the wine is not to be sold off on the cheap as mere Sauternes.
At last we came to the holy of holies, the tasting room. A bottle of 2007 stood on the counter. Anne opened it, and poured. Not a communion-sized sip with a wafer, but a glass of generous proportion. Anne invited us to find hints of mango, passion fruit, vanilla and honey. There was another taste that came through strongly: money.
Château d’Yquem is open to visitors every day from March to September: 60 euros for a guided tour, by advance reservation