On the Trail

Second Wine Strategy

David Driscoll

Not everyone drinking Bordeaux these days has a wine cellar or access to a temperature-controlled storage facility where their collection can mature slowly under the perfect atmospheric conditions. Not everyone interested in learning more about the region’s right and left banks can afford to drop $75-$200 on a bottle of red wine, store it for a decade, then drink that bottle with a $300 Michelin-starred plate of Grade A beef. It’s nice to think about living that lifestyle (and much of the Bordeaux media and marketing out there definitely encourages us to aspire towards such), but for many of us folks a normal wine pairing means $10 take-out rotisserie chicken with a few sides and a bottle of reasonable red. With prices for the best châteaux having skyrocketed over the past decade, there’s little concerning Bordeaux’s wines that seems “reasonable” to general consumers. French wine is already confusing enough to most Americans. The myriad of hard-to-pronounce names and our unfamiliarity with the quality or expectations from each sub-region are intimidating enough. Most people just want something decent for $20 or less that they can drink right now, so they look elsewhere for bargains—the Rhône, the Loire Valley, or even the Languedoc these days. The irony of that logic (to the detriment of Bordeaux and its producers) is that Bordeaux has as many superb values as any other wine producing region in the world. You just have to know where to look.

I am one of the guys described in the paragraph above. I love Bordeaux and I’ve been enamored with the category since I first started working at K&L back in 2007, but I’ve never been someone who had the interest, dedication, or the cash to start building a legit wine cellar. I like tasting wine, understanding it, and learning from my experiences, but I have to do it from a more realistic standpoint. That’s why I typically drink second wines when I feel like drinking Bordeaux. What are second wines, you ask? They’re pretty much exactly what they sound like: the second wines of major châteaux labels. The heralded first growth Château Latour, for example, makes a grand vin labeled as such: Château Latour. A bottle of 2012 will cost you about $400. However, there’s a second wine from Latour called Les Forts de Latour which usually costs about half the price or less. Often times the quality is superb and the price much more reasonable when it comes to these relative bargains. Most of the major châteaux have second wines and many have third or fourth labels to boot. Why do they do this? There are a number of reasons.

In any industry where products are branded on luxury or quality, limited quantities often go hand-in-hand with that marketing strategy. If there’s too much supply and not enough demand, the prices suffer as a result. That’s part of the reason most châteaux limit the production of their grands vins or top labels. Even if the vintage provides sufficient fruit, the producers are still going to cap production at a certain point and save the excess grapes for other marks because they don’t want too much of it on the market. Second wines also provide cover in less-than-stellar vintages. If the quality of the harvest isn’t up to snuff with the expected quality of a grand vin, the château may decide to release only a second or third label in order to recoup whatever expenses they can without damaging the prestige of the top cuvée. In some cases a château will have certain parcels of vines that have been replanted and are younger in age than some of the others on the property. While they may produce grapes that taste perfectly fine, the fruit may not be up to the standard of the grand vin, so those grapes are often sorted out and used in second and third labels. In other cases a second wine might be made from extra juice left over from the grand vin that didn’t see as much maturation in new oak, or that’s blended with wine from a different parcel. From an economic point of view, second wines give producers versatility with their marketing while providing consumers with more affordable options beneath the top tier. Snobs may look at these cuvées as “less-than,” but bargain hunters like me see each one as an opportunity for serious value. 

When the 2009 Bordeaux vintage came out the industry press kicked into overdrive. The quality was there, the wines were outrageously good, and the prices matched the global excitement. The thing about great vintages like 2009 (“great” meaning ripe and plentiful) is that the quality of the second and third wines often rises with the cream. Some of the best Bordeaux deals I’ve ever experienced came from second wines in the 2009 vintage. Château Cantemerle, for example, is one of my favorite producers year after year. Their 2009 grand vin sold for about $50 when we had it in stock. But the second wine from that vintage—the 2009 Les Allées de Cantemerle—was the real winner that year. I drank cases of that wine because it offered much of the same flavor I enjoy in the standard Cantemerle, but for $19.99 instead of $50. More importantly, it was ready to drink right then and there.  Another great second wine was the Le Parde de Haut-Bailly for $34.99. I emptied bottles of that wine week after week when we had it in stock. Compared to the standard Haut-Bailly at $160 a bottle it was an outright steal. In great Bordeaux vintages the quality often does trickle down (as Reagan liked to believe), but you shouldn’t just stick to the tried and tested harvests. In almost any vintage there are great second wines like these to be had. 

There are also cases where prestigious properties purchase extra vineyards outside of their designated estate, but vinify the grapes the same as their own estate cuvées and bottle them under new labels. An outstanding example would be the 2012 Les Brulières de Beychevelle, a wine that I can’t drink enough of at the moment. We sold the 2012 Beychevelle from St. Julien for about $60 a bottle, which is more than reasonable for the caliber of that wine. While I was tempted to spring for a bottle after having compared it to the $100 price point from the 2005 vintage, I hesitated when I noticed we were selling an offshoot of Beychevelle for $19.99—my sweet spot when it comes to Bordeaux pricing. In the case of Les Brulières de Beychevelle, the vineyards for this wine come from Beychevelle’s property just outside the appellation boundaries, which qualifies the wine as Haut-Mèdoc rather than the more prestigious St. Julien, but the quality of the wine is just outstanding. There’s a haunting nose of dark red fruits, a leaner yet surprisingly lithe palate of soft berries with dainty layers of earth and tobacco, and a pleasing finish that is refreshingly humble and understated. It’s this kind of wine that gets me excited about Bordeaux—the kind of wine where I can say, “This is made by the same guy, but for a third of the price.” It’s this kind of a deal that those folks who are intimidated by Bordeaux and its heavy price points need to experience more often.

If you're interested in learning more about wines like these, don't hesitate to reach out to us! There's also a great list and explanation about Bordeaux second wines here on Wikipedia. Often times we're more excited about these overlooked deals than we are about the classified growths themselves, so we're more than happy to talk with you about that passion.

-David Driscoll