My Brush With Greatness: Château d’Yquem 1997

My Brush With Greatness: Château d’Yquem 1997

I try to avoid the “here’s what I drank last night” approach to wine blogging, just because I don’t think it’s that useful or that interesting. However, I do make exceptions if I think the wine is particularly notable.

Last night was one of those exceptions. My dear friend Marco opened a (half) bottle of 1997 Château d’Yquem, one of the world’s most acclaimed wines. It’s a sweet white wine from Sauternes, a region in Bordeaux, that’s incredibly expensive to make. When the weather’s just right, botrytis rot attacks the grapes, causing them to shrivel up and concentrating the sugars and flavors. The rot takes its time to work its way through the vineyard and affect the grapes, which means that it requires several passes during the course of harvest to collect the grapes at just the right time. The picking is done completely by hand, sometimes grape by grape, which, as you can imagine, is pretty laborious. (And also helps to explain the astronomical prices. My buddy Marco got this half-bottle as a gift, but it would have set him back nearly $200 if he had paid retail.)

The botrytis rot, age, and the predominant grape variety used (Sémillon, accompanied by a smaller percentage of Sauvignon Blanc), all help to explain the stunning gold color. White wine darkens as it ages, and Yquem and other Sauternes take on beautiful amber and tawny shades as they get older. Aromas of dried apricots, buckwheat honey, toasted almonds, and even mushroom jumped right out of the glass. The palate wasn’t quite as complex — at least at first — with flavors of dried apricot and peach taking center stage against a backdrop of savory smokiness. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but Yquem is such an iconic wine, I was practically expecting the skies to part and reveal a chorus of angels as I took my first sip.

Then a funny thing happened. I tried it with some Roquefort — blue cheese and Sauternes is a classic food/wine pairing combination — and that snapped the wine into focus, like a final sprinkling of salt over a sauce. And suddenly, this new taste emerged, one I had experienced many times but never noticed as a distinct flavor: the taste of apricot skin. Tangy/fruity/sweet, with an edge of bitterness, and entirely different from the taste of apricot flesh.  The same way a great photograph can teach you to see something you’ve looked at a million times before, this wine helped me helped me understand a flavor I’d taken for granted my whole life.

After this mini-revelation, I took a break from the Yquem (the conversation had taken a particularly raucous turn) and realized that even 10 minutes after my last sip, the flavor of the Yquem was still vivid in my mouth. In fact, I could still taste it on our cab ride home. It made me realize I don’t pay enough attention to length when I’m tasting. It’s one of those factors that I’m trained to consider and note as part of my diploma classes, but I usually treat it as an afterthought. The Yquem was a great reminder to slow down and pay attention. If you have the good fortune to try this wine, remember to take your time. (And don’t forget the Roquefort.)

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