Second To None

By / Wine + Drinks / December 2nd, 2011 / 1

One of my first forays into learning about wine was an introductory wine course. While covering the Bordeaux region, the subject of second wines came up. The instructor imparted this wisdom: “Always buy second wines in poor vintages because you get most of the declassified grand vin at a bargain price.” The question that inevitably followed was, “And in good vintages?” “Well, then,” said the instructor, “you should also buy second wines because then overall quality is better, including the second wine.” Clear. Yep. Okay, I get it; it’s probably a good idea to buy second wines.

“What exactly is a second wine?” you might ask. “Isn’t that the bottle that follows the first one you just polished off?” While I admire your way of thinking, that isn’t what we are talking about here. Second wines (aka second labels) are declassified lots of wines bottled under a different name than their iconic siblings. A good comparison would be to look at these wines much like you would seconds in the apparel world. Clothing manufacturers will often divert certain batches of items or entire production runs into secondary labels, which are often referred to as “seconds.” This allows them to maintain their brand equity, but still get something back for these items — albeit a lesser amount. The important point here is that seconds are still made using the same expert designers and tailors and the same materials, but the quality might be only marginally less, if at all, than the exclusive brand.

Similarly, second wines follow the same design (pun intended) as the clothing industry. These wines are made from slightly irregular but not necessarily inferior lots that don’t meet the uniform standards of the main label. This allows the producer to up the quality of their top bottling while diverting less than ideal batches. Though second wines obviously don’t exhibit the same cachet of the signature wine, they are made by the same winemaking team, with the same expertise, the same attention to detail and usually with fruit sourced from the vineyards controlled by the winery. For the consumer, this is often a great deal as they are given the opportunity to indulge in great wines at a significantly reduced cost.

This practice is hardly new. The crafty Bordelaise began releasing a second wine as far back as the 18th century. Since we are talking Bordeaux, it is important to make the distinction between second wine (or label) and second growth or deuxième cru. A second growth refers to a group of certain chateaux outlined in the official Bordeaux classification of 1855; for example, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and Château Léoville-Las Cases are both deuxième cru. A second wine refers to declassified lots of wine from respected wineries. For example, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou (a second growth) produces an unclassified second wine called Croix de Beaucaillou. Confused? Read on.

The practice of establishing a second wine started as something the best châteaux in the Medoc (the left bank of Bordeaux) did to up the quality of their top wine or grand vin (great wine or first wine). It allowed the winemakers to be more selective with what went into their grand vin without wasting the remaining wine. The practice has continued in the modern era. In any given vintage, most top châteaux typically will only keep about 30 to 50 per cent of the production for the grand vin, leaving quite a bit of wine with no home. Bottling a second wine takes care of the excess, and also keeps the accountants happy by producing a higher return than selling the wine off in bulk. The grand vin’s recent stratospheric rise in value and collectability in the Asian market has had a halo effect on seconds. Carruades de Lafite, the second wine of Lafite Rothschild, was once looked down on by Bordeaux fanatics. It now retails for more than many prestigious second growths.

While there are no set rules for making second wines, some producers have specific vineyard sites that are dedicated to making these wines. Usually they are comprised of younger vines that are not yet hitting their full potential. Or they can be sites that have historically produced lesser-quality grapes. However, sometimes the grapes from typically highly rated vineyard sites will be downgraded in certain instances, in which case the juice goes into making the second wine. In lesser vintages, for example, producers may opt to make no grand vin, so all wine will end up as a second (one of the reasons to buy second wines, as my wine instructor aptly pointed out).

Besides the price/quality factor, another good thing about seconds is that you often don’t have to wait as long for them to hit prime drinking condition. Some producers take this one step further. For example, Château Palmer’s winemaking team makes a conscious effort to shape its second wine, Alter Ego, into a more approachable style by working with the blend.  

So it’s a win-win for producer and consumer, which is exactly why the custom of producing a second wine is still practiced to this day and has expanded well beyond the home base of the Medoc. Nowadays it seems that many quality-minded producers around the world are getting in on the game. Still in Bordeaux but beyond the old establishment, Chateau d’Aiguilhe is probably the brightest shining star of the now-emerging, once-a-backwater right-bank appellation of Côtes de Castillon. It produces a second label in most vintages, to great success.

If we take a second (sorry) and move out of France and into Spain, we find that the legendary Vega Sicilia winery in Ribera del Duero has long produced a second wine — though formally, it doesn’t refer to it as such. The winery, which has been compared to Lafite, is famous for producing an equally coveted and expensive wine called Unico. This rare gem is produced when the winery feels the wine quality is commensurate with the astronomical price, which means that in some vintages no Unico is made at all. The unofficial second wine, Valbuena 5°, is made every year and, like the Carruades mentioned above, is priced well above many other fine Spanish reds. Closer to home, Ontario’s Stratus winery produces an affordable second label, Wildass, whose red and white together sop up the odd lots of wine and slightly lesser batches that don’t make it into the winery’s flagship bottles. Worthy of note is the fact that at one time this wine was only available to restaurants for special order from the winery. This made it quite possibly harder to find than the main wine.

Occasionally, these labels can become wildly popular, or even more successful than the main wine. For example, the popular Mouton Cadet began its life as a second wine for Château Mouton-Rothschild. Eventually the brand became so successful on its own merit that it ceased to be a second label and evolved into a brand offering affordable, generic Bordeaux wine. In order to meet demand, the label now sources and blends its fruit from across the Bordeaux appellation rather than the original Pauillac AC. It is also produced in a white and rosé version and includes a range of reserve bottlings. Today, in terms of volume, Mouton Cadet is one of (if not the) top selling wines to come out of Bordeaux. It is, in fact, considered by many to be the region’s most successful brand.

Despite the popularity of these labels, it must be noted that the practice of making second wines is hardly universal. While they are fairly common in the top left-bank Chateaux in the Haut-Medoc, the properties in the senior right-bank appellations of St Emillion and Pomerol are less likely to produce them. There is no second wine at the rare and expensive top Pomerol, Château Pétrus. Owner and winemaker Christian Moueix prefers to sell off those lots, which are rejected as generic Pomerol. But even in this case, his avoidance of second wines is not absolute. After all, at his Napa Valley property, Dominus, he also produces Napanook, a second wine that is one of the most sought-after wines in the region.

Today, virtually any serious wine producer will have a second wine. Many producers, especially those with a reputation at stake, put as much effort into forging a secondary label as they do their top wines. If we go full circle back to the origins of the second label in the Haut-Medoc, we find that that some have taken it to the next logical (or illogical, depending on how you see it) level. Yes, it’s true. In an effort to maintain the quality of their second wines, Chateau Latour and now Chateau Margaux are both producing third wines! Not to be outdone, the two iconic Italian reds, Sassicaia and Ornellaia, both of which are modelled on the classic classified-growths of Bordeaux, are producing second, and recently third, labels.  

Heed the advice of my wise instructor and seek out seconds. Lest you be tempted to think that you’re getting second best — think again. Generally, if the first wine is good, the second will be as well. Smart consumers should capitalize on this fact and remember that many second wines will give them a taste of pedigreed wine for a fraction of the cost. So the next time a winery offers you seconds, be sure to take them up on their offer. You won’t be second-guessing.

Some consistently favourite second wines worth seeking out:

Second wine is listed first (In parenthesis the first wine is listed, followed by area of production)

  • Wildass Red or White (Stratus Red and White, Ontario)
  • Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet (Pontet Canet, Bordeaux, France)
  • Alter Ego (Château Palmer, Bordeaux)
  • Château Bahans Haut-Brion (Château Haut Brion, Pessac Leognan, France)
  • La Réserve de Léoville Barton (Château Leoville Barton, St-Julien, France)
  • Les Fiefs de Lagrange (Château Lagrange, St.-Julien, France)
  • Napanook (Dominus, Napa Valley)
  • Le Serre Nuove (Ornellaia, Bolgheri, Italy)
  • Guidalberto (Sassicaia, Bolgheri, Italy)

Rosemary Mantini has always loved words. When she isn't working as the Associate Editor at Tidings Magazine, she's helping others achieve their writing dreams, and sometimes she even relaxes with a good book and a glass of wine.

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