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Yquem 2012: Time for a Second Wine?

An Associated Free Press report from Friday December 15th, carried by several news outlets, including this one (in French), has Pierre Lurton (pictured below), MD of the LVMH-owned Château d’Yquem, declaring that there will be no Château d’Yquem grand vin released in the 2012 vintage. Usually this would mean the production of large volumes of a second wine, but even the existence of such a wine at Yquem seems to be shrouded in mystery (is it Château Haut-Charmes, or isn’t it?). As a consequence 2012 Château d’Yquem will effectively ‘disappear’, either into a disinherited and unacknowledged second wine, or sold off for blending by négociants. There is no mention, so far, of Ygrec, which I imagine will be produced as per the usual practice. Although my exposure to the vintage has so far been very limited, what I have tasted suggests there is potential for some good wines among the dry whites.

Pierre Lurton, MD of Yquem

Château d’Yquem has a long track record of declassifying and disposing of less than adequate vintages, and it is worth bearing this in mind before the fingers start to wag and the “luxury brand, price management” accusation mantra takes hold. Yes, I am sure that maintaining the brand image and identity as a consistent and reliable (and reliably expensive) product is a key factor in this latest decision. LVMH surely wants a product worthy of the amount of cash that buyers must splash, rather than ‘interesting’ wines that ‘display the character of the vintage’. Nevertheless, it was the Lur-Saluces family who declassified the 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974 and 1992 vintages and not LVMH, who only acquired the château, in a somewhat hostile manner, in the late 1990s. Clearly in the rejected vintages the aristocratic proprietors felt that the quality was not up to what Yquem’s customers would expect.

The decision is, therefore, surely partly reflective of the absolute quality of the wine, and partly about maintaining the brand image and thus its value. Some have already questioned whether or not this is the ‘right’ decision. It is something of a Catch-22 situation for a high-flying estate such as Yquem when facing a harvest of rather lacklustre fruit. The alternative, of course, would be to enhance the rigor of their already very severe selection, make the best wine possible, and then sell it an appropriate price if the quality remains below what we would see in good vintages such as 2009, 2010 or 2011. This might please wine geeks, as they might have a chance to get their hands on Yquem at a lower price. It is a decision which would nevertheless also be subject to very valid criticism, for bottling something substandard under the Yquem label. Casting my net further afield for an example of this brings me to Tuscany, and 2002 Sassicaia. A cooler vintage which engendered a rather greener style of wine, I recall Sassicaia fans at a vertical tasting back in 2007 being remarkably vocal in their criticism of Tenuta san Guido for bottling the 2002, feeling that it should have been skipped just as Yquem is doing with 2012. Regular buyers of Sassicaia weren’t interested in such a wine, even if a lower price could be set to reflect and communicate the quality; they wanted the instantly recognisable gold-star-on-a-blue-background to be a marker for a high quality wine which could be bought, cellared and drunk with confidence. I suspect that it is these sorts of drinkers, rather than Yquem-interested wine geeks with a limited budget, that LVMH will be most interested in.

Château d'Yquem

Perhaps the real disappointment here will be the aforementioned ‘disappearance’ of the 2012 vintage. Sauternes geeks, who will all be aware of this decision, would in many cases happily cough up for the second wine of the vintage if they knew it contained declassified Yquem, just as Burgundy geeks probably hunted down the 2004 vintage wines from Domaine Leroy, knowing as they did that Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy had declassified all her grand cru wines into village-level cuvées. Concerns about the vintage, quality or similar would be put to one side if the promise of a great wine at a lower price was there (although having said that, Leroy’s 2004s were pretty expensive, so I’m not sure it’s a great example). But if we had a reliable second wine we could turn to in this vintage, it would surely be the ideal solution. Perhaps now would be the time for LVMH to introduce or acknowledge the second wine of Yquem? LVMH Label drinkers would be happy as they move blithely from swilling back the 2011 vintage to the 2013. More astute buyers of Yquem are content, as this latest event is just another episode in Yquem’s long history of maintaining high standards, and they can always buy the cheaper second wine if they wish to see what the vintage is like. The more cash-strapped among us can have a taste of Yquem, in a petit-millésime, surely the way all of us on a budget should be able to enjoy the great domaines of the world from time to time? And Pierre Lurton, Bernard Arnault (France’s richest man, majority shareholder of LVMH and thus owner of Yquem) and everybody else at LVMH are content as the pricing of the 2013 will be contrasted against the 2011, not the 2012 second wine; brand value will be maintained.

Am I missing something? Time for a second wine, Pierre?

11 Responses to “Yquem 2012: Time for a Second Wine?”

  1. Chris, it’s a mantra of the luxury goods market that one should always strive to make a better product. I think the chateau has done the right thing here.

  2. Thanks John, although you could also argue that it appears to be an Yquem mantra looking at its history of declassifying. And that still doesn’t preclude producing a second wine, does it?

  3. You haven’t mentioned that the 2011 vintage has not yet been released, another decision that reinforces the reality that this is a purely commercial, luxury brand driven decision. The small size of the vintage also made it an easier decision to make.

    That’s fine for Yquem (they are perfectly entitled to follow that route and generally I wouldn’t want to stop them as in the long run a healthy Yquem at the top of the pile is good for Sauternes) but there is a potentially negative side effect for other chateaux in the short term.

    The 2012 vintage is not as bad as 1992 and much better than 1974 or 1972 – many good wines will be made. Some will have used cryo-extraction to good effect early on and others will have read the conditions right and picked mainly during the window of opportunity right at the end of October. There will be some interesting wines!

    It’s unfortunate that Yquem’s decision (and possibly that of a few other chateaux who may follow for very different commercial reasons) may dampen the market for this vintage next Spring.

  4. Thanks Steve. I’m not sure I get your point about the 2011 not having been released. That’s not at all unusual; none of the top estates will have released their 2011s yet will they? There’s always a vintage in the pipeline; are you suggesting this is a tactic to bolster the price of the 2011 though?

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on cryo-extraction; what would be more interesting would be to hear the Sauternais speak more openly about this; then it would be easier to judge the effect of its use. As it is its mention doesn’t engender a lot of confidence in what I will be tasting next April.

  5. Open communication between winemakers and critics is absolutely what should happen. There needs to be more trust engendered so that this can take place freely. That’s why, in principle, I am generally against blind tasting (certainly for new wines) and would prefer the old fashioned system of visiting the chais to taste from barrel rather than the bun fights around pre-prepared samples. Winemakers and critics have much to learn from each other and it has always been so.

    On the 2011, I meant that it wasn’t released en primeur (everyone else did). The weak market at the time wasn’t considered worthy of the wine (or something like that). As you and I both know the 2011 Yquem is a sensational wine and I guess they want strong sales and a good price when they eventually choose to release. An inexpensive release of the 2012 wouldn’t help that strategy and, as quantity is low as well, there is more to be gained from protecting their position on the 2011. I think it’s a financial and/or branding decision at heart.

    On cryo-extraction it will be interesting to see the difference next year between wines that openly used it and are proud of what they have produced and those that waited. As usual Bill and I will gather all the information together as well as we can.

  6. Ok thanks Steve I understand now; I didn’t click that you were referring to primeur releases.

    They could, of course, always hold back the 2012 for subsequent release. And other firsts seem to have maintained high prices for the grand vin wit hthe existence of a second wine on the market, available at a lower price. So while I agree with your explanation of their tyhought processes, I’m not convinced the LVMH plan is the best/only way.

  7. Nor am I – we will gather our thoughts for a clip later in the week on the issue.

  8. Chris, even if there was a second wine introduced, it wouldnt be long before it too was out of reach of the riff raff – look at the other second labels of the first growths. As fascinating as their ethereal world might appear to the great unwashed, demand always seems to exceed supply and lowering accessibility a notch or two really wont make a jot of difference in the long run. I continue to look for opportunities to buy top sauternes anyway as they are very well priced compared to the reds, but still very selectively, just like the small minority of the world who are even aware of their existence. Merry Xmas from the Antipodes!

  9. Thanks Steve, will look forward to that.

    Alan, a very good point, as the second wines of other first growths are sadly overpriced. I recall when Les Forts de Latour and Carruades de Lafite were very affordable and made good sense as a ‘buy’. Now the prices are ridiculous but I’m afraid that reflects demand for both grand vin and second wine, so that both are highly priced (as well as being the result of a little “brand management” I think, in keeping with the theme of this post!)

    Yquem, however, just hasn’t seen that sort of pricing escalation; you can pick up bottles/cases of the grand vin for a fraction of the cost of Lafite and others. A second wine would probably be a lot more affordable than Carruades/Les Forts. Maybe that’s one more reason why it won’t happen; Yquem (and all Sauternes) is difficult to sell (compared to the red wines); a second wine would only highlight that even further, perhaps?

  10. The video with thoughts from Bill Blatch on the subject is now up at http://www.bordeauxgold.com – thanks for tweeting about it. T

    The main point about all of this is that not everyone has suffered to the same degree in 2012 and many will have made good wines. The example of Chateau Coutet is used in our post. Bill Blatch even goes so far as to say that for many the wines will be as good as, if not better, than 2006 or 2004 and that wines of quality will be made.

    Unfortunately I have just heard that others may now not release their 2012s due to the negative publicity following this announcement. I sincerely hope that this is not the case and that the good wines produced can find a market.

  11. I have always thought that the best option for Yquem in bad vintages has been the use of their fruit for increased production of Ygrec. I think it is more logical for the estate to sell it as a high quality wine made in a totally different style than Yquem, rather than produce a sub-par vintage. Coming from the vineyard management side of things though, at some point during the growing season, you have to start making serious decisions for the final product which you intend to produce, and for vintages that seem doomed, aiming toward Ygrec might just be the answer (obviously if these conditions are abrupt and past the ‘brix point of no return’ for dry whites, this would not be an option). Also, I am not always inclined to purchase wines that come from top Chateaux in bad vintages as I am to purchase up-and-comers from lesser priced estates in excellent vintages. Ygrec, to me, would be more of a treat as a wine geek than a sub-par Yquem.