What makes Château d'Yquem so special? We all know it is the most acclaimed white wine brand in the world – other names like Montrachet and Tokay are in the frame too, but they are made by dozens of different producers. There are a handful of other great sweet white wines in Bordeaux, such as Climens and Rieussec, but none has ever consistently challenged the pinnacles reached by Yquem.
Another attribute of Yquem is its longevity. Some connoisseurs boast of tasting exquisite examples stretching back to the 19th century. In fact, Robert Parker, the most famous wine writer and taster in the world, pronounces the 1811 and 1847 as the two greatest Yquems he has ever tasted: "Both were unctuous, thick, extraordinarily complex wines with remarkable quantities of botrytised, honeyed fruit."
The unique flavors of all sweet wines from Bordeaux is caused by pourriture noble, or noble rot, the name given to the fungus that infects the grapes at harvest time and enhances their sweetness. The harvesting process at Yquem involves teams of pickers searching specifically for grapes within bunches that have this characteristic. It means that a single grape vine will only produce enough wine for a single glass.
I recall once purchasing a bottle of 1967 Yquem for a mere $90 (it is now more than £1,000 per bottle). The color was a light pink and the flavor was so delicate that it reminded me of slightly damp hay. My dining companion had never tasted it before and actually wept with pleasure. The other habit I have is to take a half bottle of a great Yquem when traveling as there is something especially memorable at savoring its sweet lingering intensity in an improbable location.
It is not just wine lovers that are attracted to such iconic brands. When the numerous family shareholders defied Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces and gave control to LVMH in 1996, the luxury conglomorate finally achieved a long-held ambition to own Yquem. The passion for excellence remains, but the opening prices for new vintages have steadily risen, with recent vintages being released onto the market before bottling has occurred, en primeur, like other well-known Bordeaux wines.
No one would claim that prices for Yquem are cheap, but it is relatively good value. As Richard Harvey, Head of Bonhams Wine Department says, "Yquem has an intensity of flavor that no other dessert wine can match. With its small production, it should really be much more expensive. Older vintages currently represent some of the best buys at auction."
Part of the reason for this is because Yquem has yet to find favor with the Far Eastern market, so while prices for great red Bordeaux and Burgundy have risen dramatically in the past decade, any pressure for higher prices for Yquem has come from the producers rather than the consumers. It remains to be seen if this approach will succeed as the release prices for the 2005, 2009 and 2010 vintages have all fallen. Fortunately for the collector, this does not affect the availability of great older vintages, such as the 1996, which can be found for a third of the 2010 opening prices.
A sought-after wine, such as Château Lafite 1996, sells for more than six times its opening prices. Why this discrepancy? Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners, says, "The problem is that in China, there is no interest in either sweet or white wines. To compound the prejudice, their lucky color is red."
All the more reason then to take advantage of these conditions and purchase it when you can. A half-bottle can be enough for four people to share at the end of a meal, either with the dessert or the cheese – it can work its magic with either. And there is the added bonus that if you don't have time to open it, it will certainly survive in peak condition for longer than you will.
Bruce Palling is food columnist for the Wall Street Journal Europe. He is also author of gastroenophile.com