Well, another December has found us and the merry feeling that grabs me during this month is nothing short of nostalgic. Even though the chill that we get living in Southern California is modest, I find it very welcoming. If I need a fix for something really cold, I just drive two hours up to the mountains and feel like a kid again, playing outside like I did growing up in New Jersey.
Along with this time of year I start to really revel in the food and beverages of the season, the enjoyment of family and friends, blending into moments of pleasantries, hors d'oeuvres, hot chocolate, gift giving and of course really great wines; which are never lost on me.
The holiday season is a time when I get to pair really great food and with amazing wines. This is a time I even put aside my own rule of ‘no white wine after Labor Day’ and will enjoy a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer, just for the occasion.
After we’ve enjoyed an enormous Christmas and it’s settling in my belly, about that time the holiday desserts start finding their way to the table, which includes fresh baked pies, cheese cakes, Christmas cookies, roasted chestnuts and of course cognac. I like to add a great dessert wine to the end of the feast and depending on my mood it can be an ice wine, late harvest wine or a sauterne. The sweet balance of these wines really enhance the flavors of your favorite pie and even the savory sweetness in a scoop of ice cream... much like a grand cru Bordeaux brings out the nuances of a porter house steak.
First, let’s establish the differences between various types of dessert wines. All are very similar, but how they get their sweetness is quite different. There is no simple explanation as to what makes one so very different from another, but the uniqueness from sherry to port, from madeira to sweet white dessert wines is nothing short of extraordinary. Truly, it would take a month to explain the many different ways there are that these spectacular wines are made, from how the sugar and alcohol levels produce very specific results to the fact that every region in the many different countries that produce desert wines have their own classification, but this month I am just going to touch on a single varietal. It will be of course the most famous and one of the most expensive of all the sweet wines.
It comes from the Sauternais region of the Graves section in Bordeaux at the Premier Cru Supérieur estate Château d'Yquem and it’s the only wine in the area to receive First Growth distinction because of its superiority. This varietal is classified from the region namesake,
Sauternes. Notice the capital “S” and the word ending in an “s”’, unlike the U.S. rip-off of the name; sauterne.
Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes are left on the vine longer than a normal grape. The effect is the harvest becomes infested with Botrytis cinerea, which is commonly called noble rot. This makes the grapes raisin like and from this Sauternes is made.
To be clear, ALL Sauternes have noble rot and because of the climate, Sauternes is one of the few regions where contamination with noble rot happens relatively often. However, there are times when this natural process does not happen and as a result, production of Sauternes can be unpredictable. When this occurs, it’s referred to as a poor vintage, and the vintage will not be produced that year. An interesting fact is that grapes actually ‘rot’ on the vines and then they are harvested, but not every grape gets the noble rot, which is needed for this type of wine. Wines from Sauternes, especially the Château d'Yquem, tend to be pricey, in large part due to the high cost of producing such a wine and the limited availability.
According to Chateau d'Yquem (Information booklet from the chateau, 30 June 2010), in a poor vintage, the entire crop is deemed unworthy of bearing the Château d’Yquem name and sold anonymously; this happened nine times in the 20th century: 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, and 1992 and in the 21st century one time: 2012.
The section located south of Bordeaux, has been renowned for many centuries for its sweet white wines and Chateau d’Yquem has always been the unquestionable monarch of the Sauternes. Chateau d’Yquem stands on a hill with perfect microclimate. According to local beliefs the 19th century proprietors of Chateau d’Yquem were the first French winemakers to recognize the value of what has become known as “noble rot”, which is again a form of botrytis bunch rot, a fungal attack on the vines and grapes. Chateau d’Yquem includes 254.2 acres of producing vineyards, planted to 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon. The average vine is 30 years old and approximately 110,000 bottles are produced every year.
Château d'Yquem itself was acquired by Jacques de Sauvage in December of 1593. Ownership of the property has changed hands over the last few hundred years and even Thomas Jefferson acquire 250 bottles of the 1748 vintage for himself and a few for George Washington, but of course the quality was not as refined as it is today. In 1996 Robert Parker reviewed a bottle of the 1811 vintage and rated it 100. Yes, this wine can age well over 100 years, if stored properly. Over time, usually after 25 years or so the color will turn from its current gold luster to deep shimmering amber.
In 2011, a bottle of the 1811 vintage sold at auction for $117,000. It was the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold. Today Louis Vuitton owns 55% of the company and helps maintain the pride and quality that d’Yquem has come to be known for over the centuries. Château d'Yquem has a spectacular history in the wine world and as most dessert wines are, theirs are commonly sold in a half bottle size (375ml). Château d'Yquem is a wine that should absolutely be on your bucket list.
Château d'Yquem, 2003
Produced by: Château d'Yquem
Winemaker: Pierre Lurton
Winery: Château d'Yquem
Region: Sauternes, Gironde
Appearance (Color): Gold
Aroma (Complexity): Apricot, plum, citrus, jasmine
Body (Texture and Weight): medium and thick
Taste (Balance of Flavor): apricot, orange zest, vanilla, fig
Finish (What lingers): marmalade, rose, hibiscus
Food Paring: with nearly any dessert
Final Rating: 97
Serving Temperature: 48°
Drink now through 2103
My rating system is based on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Wine Points How Good the Wine Is
95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: wine with superior character & style
85-89 Very Good: wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
70-79 Average: drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
60-69 Below Average: drinkable wine but not recommended
50-59 Poor: undrinkable wine, not recommend
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine aficionado, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science. With a desire for writing he switched to Creative Writing and then finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California as a graphic designer / sculptor. For over six years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noirs, but his true love is the Italian Sassicaia. As a way to pay for his wine collection he works as a senior marketing manager / designer for an adult sex toy company. He is also training to be a certified master sommelier. Currently he resides in Southern California with his lovely wife Shawn-Marie.