Château d’Yquem dominates. It dominates the local landscape; situated on a gravelly peak near the centre of the southern half of the Sauternes appellation it is visible from many kilometres away, and its elevated position affords visitors a commanding view of the surrounding vineyards, not only those that belong to Yquem but also those of near-neighbours Raymond-Lafon, Lafaurie Peyraguey, Rayne-Vigneau and Rieussec, to name just a few of the other châteaux which encircle the estate. Indeed, the last time I walked in the vineyard of Chateau Coutet with proprietor Aline Baly, in the commune of Barsac on the far side of the Ciron, we could see Chateau d’Yquem in the distance, a grey silhouette sitting proud on its private hill, despite it being over 5 kilometres away.
Chateau d’Yquem also dominates, in a very unique way, within the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac. The first growths of the 1855 classification of the Médoc sit proud as a quintet (or a quartet, if you prefer the classification as it stood prior to 1973), any one of the five iconic names – Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux or Haut-Brion – enough to send shivers down the spine of any lover of Bordeaux. But in Sauternes, the equivalent rank – premier cru – is the rank below that occupied by Yquem, where the aforementioned Rieussec, Rayne-Vigneau, La Tour Blanche and the like can be found. There is no Médoc equivalent for Yquem’s ranking, which is premier cru supérieur, a unique, isolated and elevated position sitting above that of all other Sauternes estates. The merchants who drew up the 1855 classification must really have liked the wines of Château d’Yquem.
The image presented by Château d’Yquem is also a particularly striking one, unparalleled within the appellation, within the entire region of Bordeaux in fact. I personally find its facade to be a very attractive one, if somewhat curious in appearance, in parts squared-off and angular, in others blessed with elegant curves. Parts are covered with the rustic red-brown roof tiles so typical of south-west France, whereas others are topped off with a much darker material, a clean blue-grey slate. Tiles such as these would perhaps look more at home on an elegant Renaissance château, like so many found in the Loire, than on what for all the world looks like a spruced-up Medieval fortress. Château d’Yquem is thus a striking blend of forms, shapes and colours; indeed, it reminds me just a little of the walled town of Carcassonne, which also has – in its modern, clean and heavily restored state – a mix of architectural styles and materials, in that case an intentional blend of Roman and Medieval, chosen to reflect the origins and history of the town. Here at Château d’Yquem, though, the reason for this amorphous blend of styles is less clear, as much of the château was built over a remarkably short period of time, rather than the many centuries its history and appearance might suggest.