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.
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.
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?