Veuillez dîner au Château d’Yquem à Sauternes?

by Paige Donner

When the gold-enclosed invitation first arrived, my initial thought was, ‘I need to frame this.’

It’s a dreams-do-come-true moment when you find yourself sitting down to dinner at the mythic Château d’Yquem in Bordeaux’s Sauternes region in the company of about 400 other invited black-tie guests.

Chateau Yquem May 13 2019 copyright SAM_0127

photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

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photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

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photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

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photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

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photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

Half of us were invited as international press by the Conseils Grand Cru Classé 1855 and by M. Bernard Arnault, Chairman of LVMH,  the owner of the château. The other half of the guests were the member châteaus of the 1855 Grand Cru Classé federation, which are considered the top most historic and exceptional wine estates in Bordeaux. Of course, it was Napoléon III who initiated the classification of these grand wine estates back in 1855, hence the name, Conseils Grand Cru Classé 1855.

In this classification, only Yquem carries the distinction for Sautternes-Barsac as Premier Cru Supérieur

photos by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

At the podium in this exquisite glass structure set amidst these prized, sweet vines, M. Arnault, back-lit by the setting golden honey-tinged sunlight, regaled his guests with several anecdotes from the rich, 400 year history of this property. Chateau Yquem May 13 2019 copyright SAM_0129Perhaps it was in honor of the guest seated just to his right, the US Ambassador to France, Jamie McCourt.

Chateau Yquem May 13 2019 copyright SAM_0162photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

In any event we all were entertained by the story found in Thomas Jefferson’s, the United States’ third President and the 2nd US Ambassador to France, journals from his 18th c. meanderings in Bordeaux. It was then that he wrote to then President George Washington of this exquisite elixir he had discovered in Sauternes at a Château named Yquem. He sent the esteemed General a few sample bottles of this sweet wine. Once Washington had tasted it, he sent Jefferson back down on a diplomatic mission to Bordeaux to order 30 cases of this Grand Vin at which time Jefferson said, ‘I’m ordering 30 cases for General Washington and you can add, please, an additional 12 cases for myself.” That was the 1784 vintage.

This would have been a full 65 years or so before the 1855 classification. Which goes to show you that our American Founding Fathers can and did have good taste in fine French wine.

When Jefferson fell in love with these wines, the estate was headed by a woman, coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally, given the Jeffersonian reputation). In any case, Françoise Joséphine de Sauvage, was a young widow by 1788 and found herself in the position of having to manage an estate that at one point during the Middle Ages belonged to the King of England (who was simultaneously the Duke of Aquitaine). She further broke ground, literally and figuratively, when in 1826 she built a new wine cellar. This, it is said, is what transformed the estate into a business and helped create its international reputation.

 

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Seated at the table / present at the dinner with M. Arnault and the ‘Ambassadrice’ were a who’s who of French business: Martin Bouygues (Bouygues), Xavier Niel (founder-owner of Free), Former Economy Minister Thierry Breton (CEO of Atos), the new Mayor of Bordeaux Nicolas Florian  (who just stepped in to fill Alain Juppé ‘s former post as he heads to take his position with the French Supreme Court in Paris),  le designer Philippe Starck, the owner of Château Lafite Eric de Rothschild, and the exceptionally gracious, humble, kind and unassuming CEO of Groupe Roederer Frédéric Rouzaud, the wine glass maker Maximilian Riedel, and the new head of Vinexpo and former Moet-Hennessy man Christophe Navarre (Vinexpo-Global)…

Groundbreaking however from Monday evening, in terms of the direction of viticulture, was Arnault’s announcement  that he intends to take his landmark Bordelais châteaus certified organic and, ‘as a way to continue their 400 year history of excellence,” he stated that they would be taking their vineyards towards bio-dynamic cultivation even in the coming years. He stated that this is the direction that vineyard cultivation needs to go in and that the grand châteaus such as theirs, and those who were represented there that evening, must set the example. 

For many decades now the most famous organic and bio-dynamic vineyard of the Grand Cru Classé 1855 estates is Pontet-Canet in Pauillac. As of 2016 it was still the only bio-dynamic vineyard in the Médoc.

Chateau Yquem May 13 2019 copyright SAM_0113

photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

According to Pierre Lurton, the managing director of Château d’Yquem  (105 ha) in Sauternes and Château Cheval Blanc in Pomerol (38 ha), they have been practicing organic viticulture for “several years now,” and they no longer use insecticide, herbicides or chemicals on their vines. He noted that it takes 3 years once you start the application process for organic certification. He also pointed out that in Pomerol in 2018 they were hit hard by mildew and the loss of the harvest was significant. He concedes, however, that bio-dynamic cultivation is the future and the path forward.

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photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

Notable on the Right Bank is Château Fonroque which Alain Moueix began converting into biodynamic vineyards in 2002. The first AB (the certified organic) label was carried by their 2006 bottles and ECOCERT (biodynamic) adherent since 2005. He was always a forerunner in this field and even as recently as only a decade ago, was still considered an outlier.

So this announcement by the CEO of LVMH, which controls in total about 70 wine and spirits estates or brands around the world including California, China as well as France, is a huge step forward in terms of recognizing the ‘bastard child’ that has been biodynamic vineyard cultivation practices these past decades, at least in ‘Big Wine’. It is also worth noting that LVMH is the number one Luxury Group in the world.

Honestly, listening to M. Arnault sing the praises of organic and bio-dynamic cultivation felt a lot like a religious experience.

Especially if nature and the future well-being of the Earth is something you believe in. 

What is Biodynamic farming? In Rudolf Steiner’s words: What is Biodynamics? A Way to Heal and Revitalize the Earth.  That is the title of his series of lectures published in 1924 on this topic. He has since been hailed as the champion-in-chief of biodynamic farming practices.

What is Biodynamics? A Way to Heal and Revitalize the Earth. 

 

photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

The dinner itself, was, of course, extraordinary. The beautiful and precise organization was carried off by the unparalleled Potel & Chabot and our chef for the evening was Arnaud Donckele, a 3-star Michelin chef from La Vague d’Or à Cheval Blanc St. Tropez.

photos by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

photos by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

 

Another one of the fun things at these dinners is that the wines you get to taste during dinner depends on with whom you are seated. I had the great good fortune to be seated with Philippe Blanc of Château Beycheville in St. Julien and also Christian Seely of Château Pichon Longueville Baron (Second Grand Cru Classé 1855)  in Pauillac, Haut-Médoc.  Served were the 2009s (sublime!) and also 2005 and 1999. All sublime and truly hinted of the experience of having died and gone to heaven.

photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

For Yquem, they served the 2001 from a Double Magnum.

And that is the end of our Yquem fairytale… for now.

Chateau Yquem May 13 2019 copyright SAM_0167

photo by Paige Donner copyright 2019 

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route-des-vins-sauternes-barsac comparisonsfrom dico du vin carte-du-chateau-d-yquem

Poster Yann Arthus-Bertrand GCC 1855

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Listen to Paige’s podcast, Paris GOODfood+wine on Spotify, iHeart Radio, Soundcloud, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio and iTunes.

Paige tasting in the cellars of Chateau Lafleur Pomerol May 2015 photo copyright Paige Donner IMG_2053 (2)

To contact Paige, find her @parisfoodwine , on Instagram @PaigeFoodWine and on her website PaigeDonner.info

 

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