Gilding the future: Ch. d’Yquem

To craft world-class wine, every stage of production demands an obsessive attention to detail – and it’s just so at Ch. d’Yquem. In the latest instalment of our series taking you behind the scenes in Bordeaux, we talk to those who ensure every bottle of liquid gold is nothing less than perfect
Gilding the future: Ch. d’Yquem

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“We take risks every day,” Vanessa Martin says to me. If you didn’t know we were standing in a winery, you might think Martin was a fighter pilot, a firewoman or perhaps a double agent. The two women standing in front of me, Martin and her colleague Chantal Uldry, aren’t necessarily the image of risk-takers – but through their hands have passed thousands of bottles of one of the world’s most precious wines: Ch. d’Yquem. It might not be life or death, but this liquid is so prized that it can seem it. 

The lone Sauternes or Barsac estate to be declared a Premier Cru Supérieur in 1855, Ch. d’Yquem has a long history stretching back to the Middle Ages. The wine crafted from this property, at the highest point in Sauternes, has been lauded for centuries. It was savoured by the likes of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800s, while Jay-Z and Beyoncé visited late last year. The property and its wines are the stuff of legend, sought out by wine lovers and collectors around the world. 

Production of this sweet nectar is painstaking – the vines cared for meticulously through the year, and the fruit only harvested if Mother Nature provides the right conditions for botrytis cinerea, aka “noble rot” to develop. If everything is in their favour, with just the right amount of moisture and heat at the right time, this fungus will work its way into the bunches of grapes, piercing the skin, concentrating the acid and sugar in the grapes, as well as lending its own distinctive spicy, marmalade aromas. Yquem’s team will pass through the vines up to six times, picking individual bunches and berries that are ready. Yields are miniscule, with approximately just one glass of wine made by each vine. 

Chantal Uldry places bottles of the precious liquid on the line

Once the fruit has made its way into the winery, been pressed, fermented and aged in barrel, with only the best selected for the final blend, the wine must be bottled and labelled – prepared for its début in the world. And this is where Martin and Uldry come in, part of the team who ensures that every bottle that leaves the premises is worthy of the Ch. d’Yquem name.  

“We seek perfection,” Martin tells me. She has been working at the estate for two decades, having started out in the vineyards before moving into the winery, having worked with the property’s longtime winemaker Sandrine Garbay on the vinification as well as bottling and labelling, and now under the current Maître de Chai Toni El Khawand. Martin, like Uldry, is local – and wine is the region’s trade. Her parents worked amongst the vines, so she followed in their footsteps. But she didn’t love it, she found the yearly cycle repetitive – doing the same thing year in, year out – and asked to move. “This job, it changes every day,” she tells me, of her role in the winery. “I see different people every day; my work changes every day.”

Harvest underway at Ch. d'Yquem

Watching the team work is remarkable. While much is mechanised today, everything is checked by a human member of the team. Martin takes a bottle off the line to check a label, whips out a tape measure and tuts before carefully peeling the back label off and reapplying it one millimetre further up the bottle. I watch one of their colleagues lining up a ruler against a double-magnum (all the large formats are still labelled by hand), re-applying a label five times to ensure it is just right. At another station, a woman delicately rolls each bottle in translucent tissue paper, wrapping each one with the same soft touch, before gently laying each one in a case. 

Uldry is set to retire later this year, after 23 years at Ch. d’Yquem. Like Martin, she’s seen much change at the estate, with its evolution under LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), who have invested greatly since they purchased the property in 1999. She recalls how they used to wash the bottles by hand, and the machinery was much clunkier – whereas now it is a very slick operation, with standards higher than ever before. 

Labelling for the latest release of Ch. d'Yquem, the 2021, underway

There was a period when the château did a lot of reconditioning – old vintages would be sent back to them to be checked, authenticated, topped up and re-corked, as well as possibly re-labelled, before being sent back to a merchant or collector. As such, both Martin and Uldry have seen some extraordinarily old bottles, and – luckily for them – had the chance to taste some of them. Martin tasted 1921, while Uldry’s experience stretches back to the 1904 vintage – wines that they struggle to find words to describe. I recall Sandrine Garbay telling me about a bottle from the 19th century that was in a cellar in Spain, but was accidentally broken, and the sommelier team urgently called the château, cradling the bottle as they drove up to Bordeaux, desperate to save the precious wine. 

“It's a source of pride that these bottles go all over the world,” Uldry says, when I ask about the ultimate destination of the wine that passes through their hands. They’re well aware of the value of the wine they’re handling, the impact of any breakage, and how crucial their role is. It is, after all, the final step for these bottles before they leave the estate, heading out into the world as ambassadors for the Yquem legacy. And many of the bottles, if not most, of the 2021 vintage (which has just been released) will outlive those that made it. As Martin says, their work isn’t about today – but tomorrow: “We’re leaving it for the generations that follow.” 

Explore all current listings of Ch. d’Yquem or read more about Bordeaux  


Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.