Bordeaux "second wines" offer first-class bargains

PARIS Tue Oct 18, 2011 8:25am EDT

A guest inspects the colour and body of wine at the Chateau Malartic Lagraviere in Leognan, southwestern France, during the start of a week of wine tasting at the chateaux in the Bordeaux region April 4, 2011.   REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

A guest inspects the colour and body of wine at the Chateau Malartic Lagraviere in Leognan, southwestern France, during the start of a week of wine tasting at the chateaux in the Bordeaux region April 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Regis Duvignau

PARIS (Reuters) - If you can't afford a top bottle of Grand Cru from Bordeaux, you might be delighted to learn that most leading chateaux also make less expensive "second wines".

In the quest for quality, Bordeaux vintners such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour and many other famous names have become more selective in order to obtain a signature taste and avoid vast differences between various vintages.

Bordeaux wines are blended wines and a vintner composes a vintage by using various grape varieties in changing proportions and increasingly keeps the juice from specific parcels apart up to the mixing stage. There is also a difference in age of the barrels used for ageing. New oak leaves a different imprint on the wine than older wood.

That means that a large part of the "unfinished" wine production does not end up in the main label bottles. Rather than selling all this in bulk to the wine trade, the best of the leftovers is bottled on the grounds with a different label.

Often these so-called second wines mature less well than the first wine and need to be drunk at a younger age. They can also use grapes from younger vines than those destined for the main wine as a result of regular replanting in the vineyard.

Sometimes, the estate may also decide a vintage does not make the cut for a first wine and presents it as a second wine.

Chateau Rauzan-Ségla did not sell a first wine in 1987 and the best juices went to its second wine Ségla. Rauzan-Ségla, a Margaux Grand Cru, celebrates its 350th anniversary this year and marked this with a label designed by Karl Lagerfeld for the 2009 vintage which was bottled this year.

Among the first Chateaux to present a second wine were Château Léoville-Las Cases with Clos du Marquis in 1904 and Château Margaux with Pavillion Rouge in 1908.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild decided a less-than-excellent 1930 production would not be sold under the Chateau Mouton Rothschild flagship name and in 1932 he bottled the wine as Mouton Cadet. Philippe was the youngest brother, called cadet in French.

Demand for Mouton Cadet was so great, however, that in following years the château had to mix with wines from other estates and the label went on to become one of the biggest commercial success stories of Bordeaux. Since 1994 the 'real' second wine is called Le Petit Mouton de Mouton-Rothschild, made from younger vines and with a limited production.

A FRACTION CAN STILL BE A LOT

Of the 60 Grand Cru wines of the 1855 classification, excluding the Sauternes wines, only Chateau Saint-Pierre has no second wine.

This Saint-Julien wine estate is part of Domaines Henri Martin with Chateau Gloria, Chateau Haut-Beychevelle Gloria and Chateau Bel-Air. Henri Martin, a former barrel-maker, bought Saint-Pierre in 1982 when he was 78. He died in 1991.

"We do not make a second wine because of the small size of our vineyard and because the development of Saint-Pierre was a long-term project and we focused entirely on the brand and the main wine, the rest of the harvest we sell in bulk as Saint-Julien," said current owner Jean-Louis Triaud, Henri Martin's son-in-law.

The second wines of the top five Grand Crus have taken flight of their own accord because some investors prefer these assets over other names in Bordeaux.

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild has as a second wine the Carruades de Lafite-Rothschild named after a hillock on the grounds. The 2003 vintage of the Chateau, with a top-rating by Robert Parker, sells for some 2,100 euro per bottle. The Carruades of that year fetches a modest 575 euros by comparison.

Chateau Latour 2003 sells for just under 1,500 euro and a bottle of Les Forts de Latour of that year is for sale at about 250 euro.

Chateau Beychevelle is a so-called Fourth Growth - out of the five - among the Grand Crus. Now the property of Japanese brewer Suntory and French drinks group Castel, the estate has three wines. Next to the main label there are Amiral de Beychevelle as a second wine, while the Brulières de Beychevelle are made from parcels belonging to the estate but not within the Saint-Julien appellation area.

According to the estate's published history, Beychevelle traces its roots back to Jean-Louis Nogaret de la Valette (1554-1642), Duc D'Epernon and Great Admiral of France. Hence the name 'Amiral' and the sailing ship on the label.

A Chateau Beychevelle of 2003 sells for 165 euro and the Amiral costs 25 euro.

Managing director Philippe Blanc said the second wine is "less emblematic" than the first but the estate puts a lot of effort and care into Amiral in order to serve loyal customers.

"In 1982, four percent of the harvest went into the second wine, now it is 40-45 percent," he said.

(Edited by Paul Casciato)