Chateau d’Yquem Tasting Notes
I had the great good fortune to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime (for those of us with real-life means and priorities) tasting of Ch. D’Yquem organized and arranged by Albert Givton in Vancouver, at the Four Seasons Hotel.
In years past, the cuisine at hotel restaurants was decidedly inferior to the smaller restaurants, which were often owned and operated by people with driving passions for excellence in food preparation (sadly, often without the business sense to match).
This situation began to change about 10 or 12 years ago, when forward thinking hotels began to seek out and attempt to retain chefs whose training and inspiration did not begin and end with an institutional cooking course in some community college. Now, in this part of the world at least, many hotel kitchens vie with the small establishments for top honours.
When Albert began to plan this event, he found himself faced with the biggest challenge in his decades of crafting meals in which wine and food would combine to sing together, as opposed to screeching at each other. He was fortunate to find a chef, Douglas Anderson, at the Four Seasons, that not only had the training and experience to aid in the task, but who also had personal experience with sauternes and with Yquem in particular. While I would not normally include food notes, except at the end of my tasting notes, for fear of boring those to whom the wine is the primary or perhaps only priority, in this case the combinations were so fascinating that I have included notes on both food and wines together.
One caveat – this dinner encompassed thirteen vintages of Yquem, a champagne, and a Burgundy, and the notes are fairly lengthy.
We started with a non-vintage Louis Roederer Brut Premier which was served with 4 different exquisite canapés featuring such things as seared tuna, foie gras on tiny half figs, and rare bits of thinly sliced tenderloin garnished with slivers of orange rind, all wonderfully done and an indication of what was to come.
The first flight of wines consisted of the following:
1987 – a medium botrytis nose with some brightness to it (reminiscent of the 90 Suduiraut, unless memory fails me), with a little coconut and banana. It was smooth and long on the palate, and quite well balanced, a signature of the Chateau, as it was to become evident when we had tasted more of them. It went particularly well with the food.
1980 – A lousy year for red Bordeaux. A very good year for sauternes. A very full smooth feel followed a very nice honey and lychee nose. On the palate, very full, smooth and a long finish. It was not as sweet as the 87, but had less acidity as well, and so showed as richer. The fact that it was not bottled until 1984 and had longer in wood doubtless was a factor in the development of this softer wine. It also complemented the food admirably.
These wines were served with a terrine of foie gras with a crisp lemon cracker and a glaze of white grape emulsion. Particularly wonderful given that I so rarely get good foie gras here (probably a good thing, I suppose, though I noted that one of my table-mates, a cardio-vascular surgeon, did not fail to finish his portion).
The next course was accompanied by:
1990 – A somewhat hot vanillin nose with the elements not yet blended together. Simple now, but nicely balanced, with some banana in the long aftertaste. This wine may become great but it is much too soon to tell. I have seen people drinking this in restaurants, likely on expense accounts or trying to impress each other. What a waste. While I would certainly assist in such infanticide if invited, the only thing that the host would impress me with by offering such a wine would be his lack of expertise (though I would not think to voice such an opinion, at least so long as the Yquem was flowing).
1989 – This showed a lovely honey and pineapple nose, and was bursting with coconut and mango flavours on palate, balanced and exceptionally long. A big wine with high alcohol. Favourite of flight for many.
1988 – Less concentrated, but more botrytis, with a smoky orange nose and higher acidity than either the 90 or 89, my favourite right now for drinking, though given time I felt that the 89 would surpass it (what the 90 will do is something that I cannot guess).
The food for these wines was:
Nova Scotia lobster and celery root smoked cod brandade with Granny Smith apple, all stuffed into a cylinder of pastry, served on a lemon nage.
The next flight consisted of:
1986 – Fascinating multi-faceted nose with apricot, nuts, and pineapple, excellent balance and astounding length. A fantastic wine that did not go well with the food served with it.
1982 -Not generally a great vintage for sauternes, with the exception of Yquem (and Suduiraut, which oddly enough failed to make a great wine the following vintage, 1983, which was for other sauternes, a much better vintage). From a tough year, this wine showed acidity and greenness on the nose, the only one to do this, as a result of the higher than normal blend of sauvignon blanc (typical blend is about 80% semillon, 20% s.b.). Not much botrytis, but some nice apricot scents and flavours with acidity at the end. It went much better with the food than the 86 did.
The food for these wines was:
Timbale of foraged mushrooms (in this case, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms) in a shallot reduction, served with sauternes ver jus, and a small bundle of green beans which amazingly enough went quite well with the 82.
The next flight:
1976 – Spicy melon nose, well developed wine with good acidity and length and more intensity than later wines. It was mentioned by those that know, that after the decade of the 70s, the wines do not show the same intensity of flavour, nor will they likely last as long, an understandable trend in winemaking, given the length of time most of these wines require to reach maturity and the notorious impatience of people these days.
1971 – Initially a bit reticent in the nose, it came out a little earthy, backed by botrytis and fruit, and was rich and almost figgy on palate, crisp and long. Not according to those with experience, the best of bottles, being a little darker than normal and not showing as well as it might.
1970 – A touch oxidized, dark and with much more ullage than the other bottles, this showed an earthy mushroomy nose, reasonable length and concentration and went well with the food. By chance, I have had this wine twice in the last year, and thus can confirm that has shown much better. I append my notes from the last time I had it, in late June –
“1970 Ch. D'Yquem - a fairly dark amber colour, with a quite intense sweet nose of botrytis, very long and full in the mouth to the point of being unctuous - excellent wine.[terrine of duck foie gras with prune confit and brioche toast]”
This flight was served with a remarkable (_all_ of the courses were, really) dish – Cinnamon stewed confit of duck in a cabbage wrap with honey-thyme toasted turnips.
The next course was problematic for the organiser, being served with a red wine. It was Saltspring Island lamb rack (a local lamb with the same sort of reputation here as pre-sale lamb has in Brittany), served on a barley risotto with hamhock bits, toasted figs and Pinot Noir infused lamb stock..
It was served with a Drouhin 1989 Chambolle Musigny 1re Cru ‘Les Amoreuses’, which (eventually) showed some nice cherries and mushrooms on the nose, and a maturity on palate ending with a touch of acidity that may have been the sauternes – it was very difficult to go back to a red wine after ten Yquems!
Finally, the big guns. By this I mean the arguably the best wines from each of three decades, the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
1983 – Rather undeveloped with a deep but not too complex nose, showing the usual caramel honey and coconut elements, a massive wine, thick on the palate, and very balanced and long. I would not care to predict when this wine will be at peak, given that it seems hardly to have moved in its development at this point.
1975 – Very interesting spicy melon nose, this one was well developed with good acidity and length, spice, some oak, and the usual fruit elements in the nose, and a wonderful smoothness.
1967 – For me, the best wine of the evening. Fortunately kept in one cellar from purchase (unlike the 70, which Albert had purchased from less reliable origins), it was fairly dark, showed honey, vanilla, and a hint of Earl Grey tea in the nose which to me evidenced its maturity. It was so well balanced that at first it seemed lighter in body than the other wines, but it was in fact very full, - a wonderful wine showing what an Yquem can be at its peak.
These wines were served with a warm savoury (thyme) apricot tart with toasted walnuts and Fourme d’Ambert cheese. Though there was a light dessert after this course, for me this was the pinnacle, from both the wine and food points of view.
Someone actually cancelled out on this event late in the day. A member of the group at my table opined that there were unavoidable circumstances that might come up, funerals and such. I replied that the only funeral that would keep me away from an event like this would be mine.
Truly an unforgettable experience, and my thanks goes out to Albert Givton for sharing these wines with us. I have never participated in an event in which the wines scored so high, nor showed such uniformly high quality.