Bordeaux “second wines” offer first-class bargains

With the growth of the Chinese and other Asian markets in the last few years, the clamour for Bordeaux’s illustrious first growths is louder than ever, and with that demand comes the corresponding increased price tags. The claret lover need not despair, however, as most of the top Chateaux are producing second wines of excellent quality at a fraction of the cost. Increasingly wine makers from the likes of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Latour are refining these second wines to reflect the quality and style expected of these historic estates.

Bordeaux wines are a blend of two or three different varietals which the winemaker will use in varying proportions to establish the character of the vintage. Often parcels are kept apart and allowed to develop in isolation until the mixing stage. Differently aged oak barrels may also be used in various combinations, newer oak imparting more powerful toasted vanilla notes than the mellower older barrel.

This method of production causes a significant quantity of unfinished wine to be left out of the final vintage by the wine maker. Often this will be sold on in bulk to make up generic claret blends from a wide catchment of estates. The best of this excess, however, along with grapes from younger vines not yet ready to contribute to an estate’s main product will be used to produce a second wine. These wines often mature significantly faster and can therefore be drunk at a younger age than a premium Grand Cru Bordeaux. An estate may also decide that a vintage, inferior enough to warrant an entire year’s production, be labelled as a second wine to protect the reputation of the estate. This occurred in 1987 with Chateau Rauzan-Segla using its best juices for its second wine Segla. Similarly, the Baron Philippe de Rothschild decided his 1930 wine was not up to the Mouton Rothschild name and released the entire vintage under the name Mouton Cadet, cadet meaning younger brother in French. Demand for Mouton Cadet became so great, however, that in subsequent years wine was purchased from other estates and it became one of the great commercial success stories of Bordeaux. The “real” second wine produced by the Rothschild estate since 1994 is Le Petit Mouton de Mouton-Rothschild.

Of the sixty 1855 classified Grand Cru estates (excluding those in the Sauternes), all but one, Chateau Saint-Pierre, a St Julien producer, have second wines. These can provide relative bargains for the investor looking for excellent clarets but reluctant to part with the thousands of pounds required to lay his hands on a Grand Vin from one of the top producers. For example, a 2003 Chateau Lafite Rothschild will cost roughly £1800 per bottle while the second wine from that estate, Carruades de Lafite-Rothschild 2003, can be procured for a much more modest £500. A Chateau Latour 2003 can sell for around £1300 per bottle, whereas a bottle of Les Forts de Latour of the same year can cost a little over £200.

Chateau Beychevelle, a Fourth Growth Grand Cru estate in the St Julien appellation area,  traces its history to as far back as Jean-Louis Nogaret de la Valette (1554-1642), Duc D’Epernon and Great Admiral of France. Their second wine carries the name Amiral de Beychevelle to reflect the nautical background of the estate’s historical founder. This reflects a willingness on the part of the Bordeaux Grand Cru estates to accommodate their second wines into the culture and the history of their brands.

Philippe Blanc, managing director of Chateau Beychevelle, has said that the second wine is “less emblematic” than the first but the estate nonetheless puts a lot of effort and care into the Amiral, in order to serve loyal customers who may not otherwise be able to afford the estate‘s Grand Vin. “In 1982, four percent of the harvest went into the second wine, now it is 40-45 percent,” he said.

Chateau Beychevelle is now owned by the Japanese brewer Suntory and French drinks group Castel, and produces three wines. Besides the main label and the Amiral de Beychevelle there is also the Brulires de Beychevelle which is made from grapes grown on land owned by the estate but lying outside of the St Julien appellation area. A Chateau Beychevelle of 2003 will sell for around £140 while the Amiral will cost about £21.


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