We Americans don’t realize it, but the Chinese are determining what wine we drink.
They’re not flooding the market with knockoffs or gray-market bottles. Instead, their voracious appetite for big-name Bordeaux has relegated us to buying the leftovers.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining. Bordeaux’s so-called “second wines” are exceptional, and are an affordable way to access top chateaus.
“Today they must be good because they are a true and authentic introduction to the estate,” says John Kolasa, managing director at both Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in St. Emilion. “Your name is on the label.”
Historically, most second wines from the Médoc were sold in French supermarkets, according to Emmanuel Cruse, owner of Château d’Issan in Margaux, and few producers cared about their quality. Only a rare chateau would make a third wine; Latour, for example, introduced its third wine, labeled simply Pauillac, in 1990 to enhance the quality of its second wine, Les Forts de Latour.
But over the last decade, as the prices of the standard-bearer wines escalated, in large part due to demand from China, producers realized there was real money in promoting their second wines. The notion of sloppy seconds has vanished.
“Ten years ago, there were perhaps five to 10 (second wines) that merited attention. Now there are scores of them,” notes Christopher Shipley, former sommelier at the 21 Club in New York and currently U.S. sales director for Joanne, a large importer of Bordeaux.
The numbers are one reason why chateaus are smiling. At third-growth Chateau Palmer, annual production of its top wine fell from 15,000 to 20,000 cases to about 10,000 cases since the winery’s 1998 introduction of a second wine, Alter Ego de Palmer. But not only did the quality of the grand vin increase enormously – so did the price, from about $80 a bottle upon release for the 1996 to $350 for the 2009. The 2009 Alter Ego – about 6,000 cases – sells for $80 a bottle.Although it’s not clear which chateau made the first second wine, the concept became entrenched when Chateau Latour introduced its second wine with the 1966 vintage. Now, most properties in the Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, on the Right Bankand even in Sauternes, make one.Typically, second wines are made from younger vines or parts of an estate that historically made inferior wine. Young vines, which for Cruse are less than 18 years old, can make good wine. But, he points out, they can be inconsistent.Initially, Bordeaux vintners made these seconds to bolster the quality of the first wine – in large part to win the race for critics’ scores and also to protect a chateau’s reputation. But Rauzan-Ségla, unhappy with its 1987 vintage, bottled its entire crop under its then second label, Château Lamouroux. (Today, Ségla is the label for their second wine.)
Only the best at the top
Choosing only the very best for top wines has become a virtual necessity as prices have spiraled.
“Selection is the key for making good wine,” says Marcel Ducasse, who before his retirement was largely responsible for the dramatic 1980s turnaround at St. Julien third-growth Chateau Lagrange.
When Ducasse took over at Lagrange, everything from the harvest, including press wine, went into the blend for just one wine. It was, he says, a “fosse commune” – everyone in the same grave.
Now, Lagrange makes at least three and sometimes four wines, with the grand vin representing less than half of total production. Its second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, plus bulk wine and other discarded lots, comprise the other half. While improvements in the vineyard can take a decade, Ducasse points out, selection can improve a wine overnight.
Yet at Palmer, the second wine starts in the vineyard. Management identified plots that produce good wine, but are never up to the standards for the grand vin. Wine from those parcels, which typically matures earlier, as well as selected barrels that don’t make the cut, wind up in Palmer’s Alter Ego.
The blend for both is roughly equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. A little Petit Verdot goes into the grand vin as well.
Elsewhere, the wine is made and aged in the same way, regardless of its original plot. Winemakers taste each barrel, eliminating those not up to snuff. Even some of first-string quality, but not in the style of the chateau, are excluded.
In 2005, Chateau Margaux diverted more of its superb Merlot into its second wine, Pavillon Rouge, because its higher-than-usual alcohol content would have perturbed the balance of the grand vin, according to Paul Pontallier, Margaux’s managing director.
Jean-Philippe Delmas, managing director at both Chateau La Mission Haut Brion and Chateau Haut-Brion, explains that his team first makes the blend for the top wines and then goes back and makes another blend for the second wines. What’s left, he says, “goes into the garbage.”
The concept has spread beyond Bordeaux. Ornellaia, in Tuscany’s Bolgheri, introduced its second wine, Serre Nuove, in 1997, just in time for its first wine to soar in quality. Coincidence?
Consumers should be smiling. Second wines mature sooner and are far more approachable when young. They are typically only slightly less polished- lamb’s wool versus cashmere – than their big brothers. While less complex, they still qualify as refined Bordeaux.
And second wines are inevitably much cheaper. Even for less prestigious wines, the price difference between the grand vin and the second is significant. The 2009 Chateau Lagrange sells for about $66; the excellent Les Fiefs goes for about $32. A similar ratio exists for 2009 Chateau d’Issan – $85 for the first wine, $34 for Blason d’Issan.
So thank you, Beijing.
From the notebook
2009 Alter Ego de Palmer ($80, 14% alcohol): This blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is extraordinary, reflecting the polish of Palmer and the stature of the vintage. Engagingly lush now, a dark mineral component complements ripe black fruit notes. Plush tannins makes this almost feel like a grand vin. Importer: K&L Wine Merchants.2008 Blason d’Issan($40, 13%): A super second wine with remarkably suave tannins and uplifting acidity that balances its exuberant fruit. The velvety texture is textbook Margaux. Importer: Joanne Bordeaux USA.2008 Les Fiefs de Lagrange ($35, 13%): Les Fiefs is perhaps the best value Bordeaux in the market. Charming and accessible, the 2008 has the class of top-notch Bordeaux, delivering a wonderful mix of fruit flavors and slightly savory nuances wrapped in glossy tannins. Importer: Joanne Bordeaux USA.2008 L’Hospitalet de Gazin ($50, 13%): Concentrated with an engaging touch of tar, the second wine of Gazin tantalizes with just a hint of the flamboyance of Pomerol. Importer: Vintus Wines.
2008 Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia ($58, 13%): Hints of chocolate and spice embellish the black fruit character of this lively and plush wine. Vibrant acidity – it is Tuscan – amplifies the flavors and enjoyment. Importer: Folio Fine Wine Partners.
May 13, 2012