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Chateau d’Yquem: a Perfect Score, a Pretty Price!

By Debra Meiburg MW

by Debra Meiburg MW

Oh my! This was the collective gasp around the wine industry when Chateau d’Yquem 2001 hit the market in 2005! Having received a whopping 100-point rating by both Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, the two most influential point-giver-outers in the world, the mad scramble for the newly released bottles was messier than a World Cup scrum.

Why all the fuss? Parker, arguably the world’s most influential wine critic, had ascribed the coveted 100-point score to this regal wine only twice before—to the inaccessible 1811 and 1847 vintages.

That said, in the sweet wine region of Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem has held the throne for centuries, wooing a loyal constituency even in the worst of vintages. Highly prized by collectors, it is consistently the highest priced, most sought after sweet wine in the world.

Shackled with a tangle of consonants and vowels, Chateau d’Yquem is usually referred to simply as Yquem (pronounced ee-kem) with the letter “d” articulated only when the word chateau is parked in front of it.

We owe this nectar of the gods to an action by a fungus called botrytis cinerea. Because botrytis cinerea is asexual, it doesn’t bother dating around, but reproduces immediately by forming spores that surreptitiously hitchhike from grape to grape. This sexually-liberated fungus is the spore-forming version of – I am not making this up– botryotinia fuckelianano.

Botryis cinerea, more poetically known as “noble rot” has a shameless sweet tooth. Thriving on sweet juicy pulp, the fungus systematically punctures grape skins with needle-like fibres in order to feed on the rich juice. Over a period of time, these microscopic holes allow the watery liquid in the grape to evaporate quietly, resulting in a grape with intensely concentrated sweetness. As the infection progresses, the grapes turn brown, wrinkled and furry, similar to what one finds in the fridge after returning from holiday.

While many new world regions produce top quality sweet wines, there’s only one wine that has managed to come close to Sauternes style: DeBortoli’s Noble One. Julie Mortlock, winemaker of the famed Australian wine, points out that noble rot does not progress evenly through the vineyard and “it is common to have bunches with some grapes brown and shriveled while others are green.” As anyone acquainted with Yquem’s marketing materials knows, the chateau painstakingly harvest its grapes in multiple rounds, or tris, to ensure all grapes are equally endowed with botrtyic influence. Julie argues that mixing in a few uninfected, green grapes helps provide refreshing acidic balance to her wines, as well as preventing the pressing process from getting gummed up. Squeezing juice out of a clump of gooey, rotting raisins isn’t easy, nor does it yield much juice, which explains the stratospheric prices of Chateau d’Yquem. But pay we do, for no price is too high to sip liquid gold.

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