Chateau d’Yquem: The Man Among the Boys of Sauternes

In the village of Sauternes, there are dozens of wine producers who focus on the same sweet white wine, known by the same name.  It’s pale yellow and as it gets older, it turns slightly darker. It’s hard to chug more than a small glass because it’s very sweet.  But the most fascinating thing about Sauternes is the vast gulf between all of the producers, hundreds around the region, and the one big kahuna of them all…Chateau d’Yquem.

Look over the maps given out at the Sauternes visitors center– there will be no mark for this chateau. Not on the map, not part of the reviews, simply not there at all. That’s because Chateau d’Yquem is so far above the others, the last thing they want is, oh no, to have visitors and get publicity!  You can arrange a visit to the elusive producers of the world’s most expensive and best vintages of Sauternes, but you must write them two months in advance….and you may or not get your wish. Tasting? Forget it.

In the Visitor’s Center they have a blend that combines a tiny amount of the wines from every single one of the 150 different Sauternes producers…so you can get 1/150th of a taste of Ch d’Yquem. We drove up the long driveway to the chateau, where there is only a tiny sign. It used to be owned by a local family, who were even more elusive than the current owners, French luxury goods giant LVMH Moët Hennessy . Thomas Jefferson once visited the chateau and brought home 250 bottles, declaring it the best white wine in France.

It’s as if there is one player who is so much far above the others he’s playing with children.  I can’t think of another product with such a vast gulf in perceived quality. An extremely hard to find bottle of a top year Ch. d’Yquem costs $615, or you can get more common vintages for $225. Other producer’s Sauternes can be had for $20-40. It is said that d’Yquem’s wines can be cellared much longer and their noble rot seems to work better than everyone else’s.  So if you’re going to try Sauternes and want the best of the best, now you know what label to look for.