11 mins reading

Interview by Paul Best

In just two years, Toni El Khawand has gone from intern to cellar master at iconic Bordeaux wine house Château d’Yquem. His quick rise is grounded in a lifelong love of sweet wines.

At first blush, Toni El Khawand is not who you would immediately think would be in charge of winemaking at one of the world’s great wine labels, the 400-plus-year-old Château d’Yquem, located in Sauternes in the French wine region of Bordeaux.

For a start, the newly appointed maître de chai (cellar master)— lean, angular and just 30 years of age—was born a world away from the famous gravelly terroir of Bordeaux; in Lebanon. He seems almost too young for the role, but more than that, he has only been at the wine house for two short years; since Chateau d’Yquem first hired him as an intern.

In fact, El Khawand only arrived in France in 2016 to study phytochemistry (the branch of chemistry concerned with plants and plant products) and oenology (the study of wines) at the University of Bordeaux, having completed pharmacy and biochemistry degrees at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. But, as he points out, there is a thread connecting Sauternes and El Khawand’s history: his own family, who had vineyards in Lebanon, made sweet wines, which gave him an appreciation of them from a young age.

Already, the softly spoken cellar master seems to have made a significant step in his short tenure at the top, having taken the reins in 2022 for the vineyard’s first organically certified vintage.

El Khawand was recently in Australia for a whistle-stop tour to promote the release of the 2020 vintage of the fabled sweet drop —a blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc varieties infected by the botrytis cinerea fungus known as noble rot and dubbed ‘nectar of the gods’. It’s also the first vintage he worked on with his predecessor Sandrine Garbay.

He made a headline visit to the Royal Mail Hotel in the Victorian township of Dunkeld as guest of honour at a lunch in the hotel’s hatted restaurant, Wickens. The gathering celebrated the restaurant’s recent selection as Australia’s sole member of the new Chateau d’Yquem Lighthouse program—an honour bestowed on just 45 venues worldwide.

Here, El Khawand shares what it’s like working at one of the world’s legendary wine houses.

PB        You’ve had a meteoric rise, has it been daunting?

TEK      It’s been very fast: an intern in 2020, then assistant to [previous cellar master] Sandrine Garbay in 2021. When she left in 2022, I was put in charge of vintages. I was cellar master, but it was unofficial until January this year. I was ready for the challenge. I’d worked two years with Sandrine, made two vintages with her, the 2020 and 2021. She taught me a lot and prepared me for her departure someday. It came sooner than later.

PB        How was your interest in wine born?

TEK      I come from a family in the mountains who had vineyards. My grandfather raised me with a love of land, told me how to manage a vineyard, how to make wine. In the late 1980s, with the war and late arrival of phylloxera in Lebanon, the vineyard disappeared. I was born after that, so I never saw my grandfather making wine, but he always talked about the vineyard and wine and his wish to one day replant.

PB        Do you recall when you tried Château d’Yquem for the first time?

TEK      It was 30 January 2020, in the tasting room of Château d’Yquem, as a visitor. It was a revelation of what could be the essence of wine, the most noble and true form of it. It’s a wine that could last forever.

PB        What do you think Château d’Yquem saw in you?

TEK      I was a researcher with the same background as my predecessor. It gave me the scientific rigour needed at Yquem. Making Yquem is a very delicate process.

PB        What’s the thinking behind the Lighthouse program?

TEK      Launched in March 2022, the project aims to open new doors by serving the latest vintage of Yquem by the glass [from six-litre Imperial bottles] in special venues around the world that share the vision of Yquem. It’s a way to connect with younger consumers who don’t know sweet wines at all.

“For older generations, drinking Yquem is an occasion, a moment to share with friends in a beautiful place.”

PB        Is this because sweet wines have suffered declining sales in recent decades, particularly among younger drinkers?

TEK      For older generations, drinking Yquem is an occasion, a moment to share with friends in a beautiful place. They know the wine; a lot of others don’t. We’re trying to ensure the continuity of Château d’Yquem for the long term. We thought because we had 500 years of history and are the only [sweet white wine] Premier Cru Supérieur in Bordeaux that everything’s going well. But we can’t produce the best wine in the world if we’re not pragmatic, if we don’t understand the environment around us and how it’s evolving. That’s why we created the Lighthouses. Like the name indicates, they’re here to make the colours of Yquem shine again and in the eyes of the people who don’t know it even exists. In time I will be gone, but Yquem must remain Yquem.

PB        Most people think of Château d’Yquem as a dessert wine—is it true you’re encouraging restaurants to pair it with a signature savoury dish?

TEK      That’s the ‘new door’. As a young wine, it can be paired with many things other than dessert. We don’t have to eliminate foie gras or any of the other clichés of sweet wines. We want to show people you can also drink Yquem as an aperitif, alone, or with savoury ingredients.

PB        What do you like to eat with a glass of Chateau d’Yquem then?

TEK      A fire-roasted chicken is my favourite pairing with a 20-year-old Yquem, and a blue cheese selection with a 40-year-old.

PB        Traditionally, Château d’Yquem was considered best after 50 years, but the Lighthouse program suggests cellaring isn’t essential?

TEK      For the past 30 years, our wine has been accessible when it’s younger. Before that, we used to age wine four years in barrels; now it’s two years in new French oak. Yquem is [certainly] drinkable at a tender age. Maybe the wine is at the peak of its expression and complexity after 50 years, but it’ll be very different. It’s another wine; another colour, aroma, aromatic profile, another everything. Importantly, it’s still very good after two [years].

PB        What can we expect from the newly released 2020 vintage?

TEK      The vintage was very hard. We lost a third of the harvest from mildew in June. Between ripeness and development of noble rot, we had a month of dry and sunny weather. A dry wind in mid-October saved 40 per cent of the harvest. It was a miracle. It produced this fresh and delicate blend like a Mediterranean garden—jasmine and orange blossom. It’s very good for a Sauternes. The 2020 Château d’Yquem Y, too, is the best since 2010. More complete, more complex. We have fruitiness and freshness in mouth and have some salinity in the aftertaste.

PB        Where does ‘Y’ fit in?

TEK      It’s another expression of the same terroir, same vines, same grapes. But the blend is the opposite: the majority is sauvignon blanc grapes rather than semillon. This I like to pair with fresh fish and lobster.

PB       The 2022 is your first vintage in charge?

TEK    It is, but there are four in my winemaking team and seven on the tasting committee who decide the final blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc.

PB        It’s also the first vintage certified organic?

TEK      Yes, Château d’Yquem was officially certified in August 2022. We’ve been converting to organic for the past three years. Previously, the vineyard had a lot of organic production without being certified. Yquem has never used chemical fertilisers or herbicides. The soil was always mechanically worked to eliminate weeds and fertilised with manure from [our own] cows. What’s changed is the treatment of mildew with copper rather than chemicals. Also, we no longer treat the wine [before bottling] with enzymes that break down the polysaccharides that the botrytis produces in the wine.

PB        What does the 2022 look like?

TEK      It’s a special vintage. We had a heatwave from May to October, which is good, although you worry about a lack of acidity. But first tastings are very promising. Historically, good vintages have hot and sunny Octobers and even hot and sunny summers. For example, 2005, 2015, 2019 and 2021 vintages were hot and dry. ‘Y’ also will be good for 2022, I can be sure of that now.

PB        How do you spend your time when you’re not making wine?

TEK      I research and preserve the natural, agricultural and historical heritage of my ancestral village and region for the new generation. I also relax by going to the summit of a hill or mountain where I have a panoramic view that broadens my horizons. Or I’ll go on a hike, work in my garden or on my family vineyard in Lebanon.

PB        You mean your grandfather’s vineyard, the one wiped out in the 1980s?

TEK      Yes. I am replanting it using the very same local white grape varieties: merwah, helwani, kassufi, meksasi. My aim is to preserve the family’s land and our local and unique varieties.

PB        What other wines do you like to drink?

TEK      I drink red wines from Saint-Emilion, La Rioja, or Château Musar and Saint- Thomas in Lebanon, and whites from Burgundy. I also like the sweet wines of Pantelleria, and vin santo of Greece and Italy.

PB        But they’re not Château d’Yquem. What makes it superior to other stickies?

TEK      It’s in the unique diversity of soils on the hill of Yquem, the difference in altitude between summit and foothill and strong winds promoted by this topography, allowing a faster concentration of grapes during harvest. It’s also the pursuit of excellence in every step of the winemaking, at the expense of making some vintages, like 2012 [the first time in 20 years that the house decided not to go ahead with a vintage].

Château Yquem is available by the glass and in more than 18 vintages in The Royal Mail Hotel’s Wickens restaurant and famous cellar.