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"All my life, I fight the rot but now I play with the rot!" Pierre LURTON, Managing Director of Chateau Cheval Blanc and Yquem.

Yquem is located on the highest hill in Sauternes. The 113-hectare vineyard is planted to 80% sémillon and 20% sauvignon blanc.

In 1788 Francoise Josephine DE SAUVAGE D’YQUEM married Count Louis Amedee DE LUR SALUCES. Three years after that, the count died in a horse-riding accident and it was left to his dynamic young widow to manage the vineyard and wine which prospered. One of the biggest admirers of Yquem at that time was American statesman President Thomas JEFFERSON.

In 1593, Jacques SAUVAGE, a descendant of a local aristocratic family, became the owner of Yquem. A few years later, the family built the present chateau and consolidated, plot by plot, the vineyard as we know today.

In 1593, Jacques SAUVAGE, a descendant of a local aristocratic family, became the owner of Yquem. A few years later, the family built the present chateau and consolidated, plot by plot, the vineyard as we know today.

In 1999, LVMH or Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessy became the largest shareholder of Chateau d’Yquem as a result of differences between members of the owning family. The last vintage of Yquem to bear the "Lur-Saluces" name is the magnificent 2001.

Story And Photos By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

Of all the classified growths in Bordeaux, one stands alone. Unique and entirely in a class of its own. When the wines of the Medoc were rated in 1855, there were four First Growths. The wines of Barsac and Sauternes were also classified in 1855 and there were 11 First Growths. Only Chateau d'Yquem was considered good enough to be designated "Premier Cru Superieur" or "Superior First Growth".

It's enough to give a man a split personality. One moment you are worried sick that rot may strike the vines and, another, praying and wishing that rot will indeed infect the berries. Pierre LURTON would like to have it both ways. In fact, it's not too far fetched to claim that he would like to have his rot and drink it.

The reason for his ambivalence is simple. Pierre Lurton serves two very different mistresses.

At Chateau d'Yquem in Sauternes, rot – the noble but not the grey variety – is his passport to producing a great wine. However, at Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion, rot would spell disaster for the cabernet franc and merlot grapes.

"All my life, I fight the rot," Lurton exclaimed, before adding, "and now, I play with the rot!"

Speaking to the man who makes all the critical decisions concerning two of the greatest vinous gifts to humankind, it becomes quickly obvious that Yquem presents the greater challenge to Lurton. This is even if the Frenchman harps back to memories of the year he joined Cheval Blanc – difficult as it was then and for the
two years following that – Lurton would probably still consider that they pale in comparison with what he goes through now.

But flashback first to 1991 when he joined the "White Horse". That was of course the year when a devastating spring frost wiped out as much as seventy percent of production across Bordeaux. Not to mention that some vines perished. At Cheval Blanc, they did not even bother to declare a vintage for the grand vin, only for second wine Petit Cheval. So, if you ever come across Chateau Cheval Blanc 1991, that's a real fake if ever there was one. The following two vintages – 1992 and 1993 – were not so hot either. Which must have made, at that
time, the young Pierre Lurton wonder if luck was running out on him.

(When Pierre Lurton interviewed for the job, it was suggested to him that a Lurton being associated with Cheval Blanc, his name might "overshadow" the chateau, the Lurtons having three famous family branches actively and extensively involved in Bordeaux wine. The Cheval Blanc proprietors then asked if he would consider using his mother's family name instead. The idea was, however, immediately abandoned by the proprietors when
Lurton informed them that on his mother's side, the family name was "Lafite").

At Chateau d'Yquem, producing a sweet wine presents its added set of challenges.


"It's more complicated at Yquem than at Cheval Blanc. With red wine, when the berries are ripe, you pick. In the case of Cheval Blanc, there are 25 parcels in the vineyard. These are picked and fermented separately and you keep the best for Cheval Blanc and then for Petit Cheval.

"At Yquem, when the grapes are ripe, you don't pick. Instead, you wait for the mushroom (the onset of noble rot or botrytis cinera). And you continue waiting because you want for the potential alcohol to be between 19 and 20 degrees. This is very dangerous because it's as if, were it a red wine, that the vinification is taking place outside. This is because, the mushrooms, the phenomenon of the noble rot, that's like vinification.

"If you pick when the sugars are not high enough, you make an average vintage. In 1999, for example, we did not pick even when the grapes had 17 and 18 percent potential alcohol. Instead we waited. But if the rain comes, you loose the concentration. As you can see, there's much more risk involved in making sweet wine. At Yquem, we take the risk because we want to make a great wine."

There is, fortunately, a thread joining up all the differences inherent in producing a great red and a magnificent sweet wine.

"There is a good synergy between Cheval Blanc and Yquem. There is no competition between the two wines," Lurton admitted.

All winemaking is of course dependent on nature and the weather.

Even with sweet wines, up to a point, the same conditions for producing a great red wine are as equally desirable. Up to the time when the grapes are ripe, what is ideal are dry, sunny, breezy weather in the day, and cool but dry nights. For sweet wines though, to be ripe and fruity is just the beginning of a more drawn-out cycle.

For the wines to be rich, intense and long on the finish, not just late-ripeness but noble rot is necessary. But that richness has to be balanced by equally intense acidity and freshness. If only the sweetness is concentrated, then the wine can be heavy and flabby. If, however, the ripeness and freshness are both concentrated, then nature's great miracle becomes complete.

One of the greatest vintages of this century is actually the start of the century itself. "2001" Sauternes and Barsac (and the dry whites of Bordeaux too) is simply out of this world! The richness of the sweetness is of great intensity and the finish is marathonlong thanks to the relentless, unforgiving acidity. The poise and
balance of 2001 would make an Olympic gymnast champion green with envy. This remarkable vintage will continue to age and evolve long into the distant future. But even now, the wine is already irresistibly delicious.

"It is very dangerous to just play with the sugar. On the other hand, if you have good acidity, it's very easy to identify the fruit. To make a great Sauternes, you need very good acidity. It's important that the wine is very fresh.

"Then there is the question of yield. At Cheval Blanc, it is possible to make a great wine when the yield is 35 to 40 hectolitres per hectare. At Yquem, that would not be possible. Instead, the yield can be as low as seven hectolitres per hectare or about one glass per vine," Lurton informed.

Apart from the yield being so considerably lower, much more work is also involved in harvesting Sauternes. Not only is the waiting game longer – picking commonly stretches into October, even November – harvesting is not one grand sweep but can involve three, four, even many more pickings.


In 2006, Pierre Lurton introduced the concept of buying Chateau d'Yquem in futures, just like Cheval Blanc and the other top red Bordeaux. The innovation has not exactly caught on. Dessert wine, unfortunately, remains not widely consumed. Part of the reason is because unless you have at least six to eight people around the table, it is difficult to finish a whole bottle. Particularly if you also serve champagne, white and red wine during a meal.

Another reason could be that when people remember the quality of vintages, they lump Sauternes together with that of the red wine. This is unfortunate because in many cases, what is considered an average or merely good (but not great) vintage for red can be great, even exceptional for Sauternes and Barsac. These would include 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2007.



For the first time in its more than 400-year history, Chateau d'Yquem will be bottling its – practically immortal – wine in nebuchadnezzar.

The massive 15-litre bottles will be priced at €12,850 each and only 120 nebuchadnezzars will be produced. Of that number, 100 will be made available to the world with the balance of 20 nebuchadnezzars retained by the chateau in its cellar. Until now, the largest bottles of Yquem are only 6-litre imperials.

At 15-litres, the nebuchadnezzars will be more than twice that size and will be the equivalent of 20 standard 0.75 litre bottles. A dessert wine in a standard 0.75 litre bottle can easily pour 10 servings. A nebuchadnezzar will have no problem serving 200 (very lucky) people.

The Yquem 2005 nebuchadnezzars will be delivered in 2009.


Ygrec 2002
This famous, and rare, dry white is produced entirely from the vineyards of Yquem. In spite of it being
dry – 8 gms of residual sugar – Ygrec always possesses a certain sumptuousness. The cinnamon
spiced/kumquat/ripe citrus skin/minerally fruit is exquisite and exotic. The elegant and balanced viscosity
is very disarming too. Medium-plus bodied, this is an excellent pairing with the shelled langoustine
salad served as the starter for dinner

Chateau Cheval Blanc 1996
Although this vintage is, overall, more successful in the Medoc than on the Right Bank, Cheval Blanc
1996 fares very well because of the high proportion of Cabernet Franc in its make-up (the 37-
hectare vineyard being planted to 66% cabernet franc, 33% merlot and 1% malbec). The hallmark
of this vintage is its incredibly sustained freshness since the time it was born, both the colour and the
palate. The aroma is of mocha, green capsicums, apple skins and a touch of herbaceousness. The
tannins, not overly rich, are ripe and crisp. Fine, elegant and very fresh. Perfect with the roast lamb.

Chateau d'Yquem 1996
This is a top vintage. Every component, marmalade/ mango fruit; supporting oak; and, lifting acidity is in perfect balance. The harmony is just effortless. Elegant, fresh and very long. My personal favourite dessert with sweet wine is to treat the wine as its just dessert. Especially in a wine of such a high quality because given the freshness of the sweetness, there is no heaviness whatsoever. However, if I had to pair a dessert wine, cheese comes to mind immediately. The blue cheese is outstanding with Yquem ‘96. (The 113-hectare vineyard is planted to 80% semillon and 20% sauvignon blanc. Actually wine is produced from only about 100 hectares as, each year, some old vines are pulled out and replaced, and only in the fifth year is fruit taken from these new vines).

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