Tasting a Treasure: Chateau d’Yquem 1989

yquemI don’t drink a lot of $1,000 wines.

It’s just not in my budget.

So I was thrilled when our good friends, Chris Holcombe Cotanch and Bruce Cotanch, invited us to join them to taste their bottle of 1989 Chateau d’Yquem Lur-Saluces.

What?? You mean the Yquem from an outstanding vintage that scored 97 points from the Wine God Robert Parker Jr? Yes, I’ll be honored…

So just in case you don’t know why Yquem, and Yquem in this vintage, is such a treat, let me give you some history.

“History” is the key word. Chateau d’Yquem is a French wine and winery that dates back to 1593. Yes, that’s more than four centuries ago. Here in the Americas, we weren’t even growing subsistence crops, let alone a luxury item like wine.

And in the Chateau d’Yquem vineyards in southeast Bordeaux, the dessert wine made from the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that they planted in the 16th century earned them an international reputation. By the late 1700′s, our own Thomas Jefferson wanted to visit this prestigious winery, and he loved the wine so much that he bought 250 bottles of the 1784 vintage and some extra for George Washington. Wow! The 1784 vintage?? It kinda blows my mind.

So last weekend we were sitting down to taste the 1989 vintage. I was keenly aware of the history that preceeded us, and I’d done my research so that I could taste knowledgeably. Here’s what I learned:

Chateau d’Yquem is the crown jewel of the dessert wines from the region called Sauternes: it has been called “the favorite sweet wine of millionaires.” The little corner of Bordeaux that produces these wines is blessed with unique climatic conditions. The occasional dampness late in the growing season allows a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea to infect the vines. But in this case it’s not a bad fungus — this one has been nicknamed the “noble rot” because it causes the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to shrivel and to lose their water, which simultaneously concentrates the juice and increases the acid, and adds additional aromatic complexity.

The vineyard and winemaking practices at Chateau d’Yquem are also special. Grapes are picked by hand, virtually one at a time to ensure that only grapes properly infected with noble rot are taken from the vine. Several passes are conducted until all the fruit is picked, and then extraordinary measure are also taken in the winemaking process.

What results is a dessert wine that is incredibly complex and long-lived: the traditional wisdom says that a Yquem shouldn’t be opened until it has seen its 30th birthday. And they can easily go for 50 years.


So let’s talk about our 1989. The warm growing season created a particularly good vintage in Sauterne, with “concentrated fruit and a lot of complexity.” So what did we experience?

The nose was voluptuous and complex, with pineapple, honey and coconut right off the cork, that promised sweet, rich fruit.

But the palate wasn’t “sweet.” It was rich, it was intense, it was mouth-filling — but it wasn’t sweet. That was my favorite part about Chateau d’Yquem. I tasted tropical fruit and honey, but bright acid kicked in pretty quickly to tone down the sweetness. And then the rich elements lingered on my palate: the caramel, baking spices and yes, even a hint of smoke (from four years of oak-barrel aging).

I truly think that this wine would continue to offer new and more complex flavors for as long as you cared to drink it. The thing is — who can delay the gratification of drinking it? I wanted to finish every drop and then lick the glass. I realize that’s not very classy, or sophisticated — but I couldn’t have enjoyed this wine more.

Thanks again to Chris for sharing. It was a very special experience. Cheers!


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