La Dame d’Yquem
Women in Wine is a favourite topic of mine, a subject often met with ‘that old chestnut again’ and some women wine makers expressing exasperation that it is even still a subject of discussion.
This attitude may be justified today, but what about the past? France, and even more so Bordeaux, might seem to be a historical bastion of male dominance in the wine industry but this is not so. We have heard of the Widows of Champagne – their names gracing the labels (Veuve Clicquot being the most famous), but Bordeaux has its wine widows too, and I would like to share the history of one in particular.
Francoise-Josephine de Sauvage d’Yquem died at the grand age of 83 in 1851. Odd perhaps to start a story at the end of a life, but 83 was a long time to live in those days. I’m sure a daily glass of Sauternes must’ve helped.
She outlived her husband and her son passing down the reins of her vineyard to her grandson upon her demise.
Françoise-Joséphine was born in 1768 into a noble family, owner of Yquem since 1593. An only child, she lost both her parents in 1785 at just 17 years old and, as arranged by her parents, married Louis-Amédée de Lur Saluces on 6th June the same year in the Chapel of Château d’Yquem. Named on the marriage certificate as ‘Dame of Yquem of Podensac, of Saint Cri, etc.’
It was a good match between two staunchly royalist families; she had prestige although perhaps not beauty. Rumour has it she may have suffered smallpox earlier and still bore the scars. Her dowry was Château d’Yquem, alongside servants, silverware and other accoutrements of a noble house.
Although Yquem was prestigious it may well have been in debt due to family purchases of land to expand the vineyard and build the chateau. Louis-Amédée was the oldest son of a powerful and rich family, who owned the neighbouring chateaux of Malle and Fargues, therefore reuniting three leading properties of the appellation.
Unsurprisingly, her new husband took over the running of the estate before returning to the army. When he died in a riding accident in 1788, he left Françoise-Joséphine a 20 year old widow and mother of two, at the dawn of the French Revolution. Not great timing for a royalist.
This was just the beginning of her tribulations; in 1790 she lost her mother-in-law, whilst her brother in law escaped the French revolution by emigrating. Her father-in-law and her steward were both arrested, her father-in-law executed.
In 1794 it was her turn to be arrested. She was thrown into prison with her sister-in-law for 15 days before being transferred to home under guard. One can only imagine what a great prize it would be for the revolutionaries to get their hands on Yquem. She managed to hold on to it, despite being noble, by proving that the family had moved from tenants to owners in 1711 through an act of purchase and had the right to hold onto their goods. This saved both Francoise-Josephine’s neck and her property.
Some time later she was then accused of harbouring criminals, quite possible given her royalist leanings, and was again thrown into prison but this time paid the bail to get herself out.
She lost both her daughter and her sister-in-law during this difficult time. She must have been a strong person to survive so much, and to hold on to a property as a widow. Her rather determined stance in a portrait with crossed arms suggests as much.
She rose to the occasion running the vineyard herself, helped by her estate manager Jean Garros. This desire to hold on to the family property and transmit it to her remaining child transformed her from the traditional role of wife and mother to a business woman at the head of what was to become this most highly prized wine of the region.
She didn’t just hold on, she transformed the property. In 1826 she built a new cellar, allowing wine making in the best possible conditions, ageing wine in the barrels at the vineyard when most growers sent the wine down river to be aged in the cellars of wine merchants in the city of Bordeaux,
She also continued the family habit of buying more plots of land adding to what is now a 113 ha property, increasing the diversity of terroir, adding even more complexity to the wine.
But her most notable achievement, as far as the quality of Yquem is concerned, was introducing the practise of ‘tries’.
Growers in the region were producing sweet wines by late harvest as early as the 16th century. The common practice was to pick all the grapes together later. This included grapes affected by noble rot, giving the wonderful sweet wines we associate with Sauternes today, but often some under-ripe grapes or others affected by grey rot. This affected the consistency of the crop both from barrel to barrel and year to year.
The introduction of ‘tries’, or successive passages by grape pickers through the vines, meant only the grapes that reached the optimum level of ripeness were selected, ensuring more consistency in the quality across the harvest. This operation is now a legal obligation in the production of Sauternes and Barsac and most other sweet white Bordeaux appellations.
Confident in the resulting quality, she was as astute at marketing the product as she was at making it, corresponding with John Bonfield, buying on behalf of Thomas Jefferson. She held out for higher prices than the neighbours and Jefferson still bought the wine.
More tragedy was to befall her; she lost her only son at 55. Her eldest grandson Romain-Betrand was only 10 years old and she raised him and his siblings at the Chateau alongside her daughter-in-law, Marie-Françoise de Filhot. It was Romain-Bertrand she trained to take over the property, ensuring his future and that of the property by arranging a prestigious marriage with the daughter of the rich and powerful Duc de Duras.
She died in 1851, aged 83. Her grandson followed in his grandmothers footsteps, becoming known as the “Emperor of Sauternes” maintaining the vineyard and seeing it awarded the highest accolade of 1er Grand Cru Classé Exceptionel in the 1855 Classification, this despite her refusal again as a staunch royalist to welcome the Emperor Napoleon to the Chateau several years earlier.
Her grand son Romain-Bertrand the Lurs Saluces died in 1867 but the Lur Saluces family remained a strong influence in Sauternes. In the 19th century, they owned Château d’Yquem, Château Filhot, Château Coutet (where they had their stables), Château de Fargues (the seat of the family) and Château de Malle.
Chateau d’Yquem may no longer be in the hands of The Lurs Saluces family, who sold to LVMH in 2000, but they still own neighbouring Chateau de Fargues still run by Philippe de Lur Saluces, son of Alexandre, the last Lurs Saluces to run Yquem.
Still today there is a woman at the head of wine making at Château d’Yquem. Sandrine Garbay is the cellar master of this prestigious property; the spirit of Francoise-Josephine ‘La Dame d’Yquem’ lives on.