Answer: Château d’Yquem.
Now owned by luxury goods brand LVMH (Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy), Château d’Yquem has long been one of the most celebrated wines in all of history. In fact, it seems to be one of the few things that world leaders can agree on. In turn, it was praised by Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Tsar of Russia’s brother, the Grande Duke Constantine--who said France, Russia and the United States never agree on anything?
Located in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, Yquem is a sweet white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Since 1994, Sandrine Garbay has been in charge of making Yquem, alongside Francis Mayeur, and under the direction of Pierre Lurton, who also runs the historic Cheval Blanc property across the river in St. Emilion. The style has evolved over the years, but more or less, it is characteristically full of apricot, honey, orange and white pepper flavors. Sometimes there are notes of vanilla (because it is aged for 24-36 months in oak) as well as caramel, peaches and occasionally fig.
One of the beautiful things about this wine is its ability to age unconscionably long. In fact, there are still bottles out there from the late 19th c., presumably in decent condition. While I myself haven’t had a chance to try anything older than 1991, I’ve heard people speak of experiences with bottles from the 1920s and beyond that, which are still drinking incredibly well. In large part, this is due to the high sugar content (usually around 130-160 g/L) in combination with the high acidity. This combo is also something that makes Yquem rather unique. It is rare to have a sweet wine that also has such bright and vibrant acidity--briefly, acidity and sugar content in grapes are opposing forces; as sugar content rises, acidity levels drop.
At Yquem, they are able to achieve this for a couple reasons. First and foremost, their particular terroir is incredibly suited to this style of production. Sauternes is one of the few regions in the world known for sweet wine produced under botrytis. Bo-whatnow? Bo-try-tis. This is actually a fungus that attacks the grapes, making them shrivel up and eventually rot. Now before you go making that face, don’t forget that lots of people, probably yourself included, eat mushrooms. And they’re also a fungus. But back to wine. This fungus pokes little, tiny, microscopic holes in the grape skins allowing water to evaporate. Since grapes are mostly full of sugary water, this concentrates the sugar content giving these grapes a sweetness much higher than normal.
Second, they go through painstaking measures to monitor and control the spread of this fungus so that it affects the grapes just enough to make something incredible. The most labor intensive of which is actually harvesting the grapes two, three or more times. Since botrytis is a bit of a finicky thing, not all grapes get affected equally. So they go through the vineyards at least a couple times to make sure they pick only the grapes that are ready, and leave the rest to become even more concentrated. The end result is that one entire vine at Yquem is able to only make about one glass of wine (a little less actually).
It’s a pretty incredible process and yields some pretty amazing results. In Part 2 I’ll recount my thoughts on some of those results as I just recently got the chance to taste some.