Searching Through Second Wines

As a relative newcomer to Bordeaux, I’m cursed with the knowledge (imparted to me by my older colleagues) that I was simply born at the wrong time. I'm late to the party. I never got to experience the so-called glory days when first growths like Château Latour could be had for twenty-five bucks and most properties’ grands vins could be had for under ten. We’re living in a new age where information spreads quickly and the desire for fine things even faster. I’ve watched the same transition occur in our spirits department where coveted whiskies like Macallan and Yamazaki 18 have jumped from $80 to almost $300 a bottle in the matter of a few years. Why the increase in price? Because as we continue to educate ourselves about the world of wine and spirits, we’re continually and perpetually fascinated with quality. We want to drink the best stuff we can get our hands on, and—unfortunately for us—so does everyone else. With social media and the internet working as a conduit to good taste, more people than ever are searching for the exact same bottles online, creating a glut of consumers for a small amount of inventory. 

But here’s where a little knowledge can help you separate yourself from the pack. Personally, I can’t afford to drink high-end Bordeaux every week, despite the fact that I’d like to. While prices for the biggest and baddest names in the Médoc have made these wines special occasions-only in my house, I sat down with our chief Clyde Beffa recently to seek out the region’s best “second wines”—the various cuvées made by most of the major châteaux as an accompaniment to the grands vins. While Clyde’s drinking the big guns, I can feast on these fabulous value options. What are second wines, you ask? They’re wines made from a château’s property using grapes or additional vats that weren’t selected for the main wine. After carefully selecting the grapes for the grand vin, the leftover fruit can be used to make a “second wine” that often carries a relatively high level of quality for a much more reasonable price. The idea dates back to the end of the 19th century, but the wines often weren’t marketed commercially until the late seventies when customers in search of a bargain sought them out as an alternative to the pricier players. Today these wines continue to offer value for those who know where to look. For example:

The impeccable 1996 Ducru-Beaucaillou (one of my favorite producers) usually sells for a cool $259.99. If it were my wedding anniversary, I might splurge for something that wonderful. But, for a more reasonable $64.99, I can drink the 1996 La Croix de Beaucaillou, which was also made from the château’s prestigious St. Julien fruit. From one of the best vintages in the nineties, this wine still has dark plummy fruit with secondary notes of earth and mushroom. Second wines often age just as well as the grand vins, and after visiting the property this past Spring, I got the chance to taste more recent vintages of the Croix that absolutely blew my mind. The 2015 Ducru-Beaucaillou was my “wine of the vintage”, so it made sense that the leftover fruit used for the 2015 Croix de Beaucaillou was also stunning. If you’re looking for a hot deal on futures, I’d snag as much of that 2015 as you can afford. It’s powerful and brooding, but the tannins are soft and fine in nature. It’s no match for the grand vin, mind you, but it’s also less than a third of the price. Plus, you can often enjoy the second wines much sooner than you can the grands vins as they usually have a bit more precocious fruit.

Another great example of second wine value comes from the heralded 2009 vintage and the esteemed Pauillac property of Lynch-Bages. While the château’s main star from that year often goes for $200 or more, the Echo de Lynch-Bages clocks in at $59.99seventy percent less per bottle. Full of dark black currant fruit and plenty of powerful grip, this wine offers a pretty reasonable impression of its older brother, but for a price I can swing for a Friday night dinner with my friends—and I’m still drinking 2009 Lynch-Bages fruit!

Other examples?

- The 2009 Duluc de Branaire-Ducru for a mere $39.99. Brainarie-Ducru is right next to Beaucaillou in St. Julien and the property made an absolutely outstanding wine in 2009. While Branaire is known as one of the great values in Bordeaux, the Duluc packs even more value into this cuvée. It’s fleshy, silky, and soft from front to back. 

- The 2012 Les Brulières de Beychevelle for $19.99. A hot smoking deal if there ever was one full of cassis fruit and fine tannins that are balanced and elegant all the way through. I bought a case of this.

- The 2009 Reserve de la Comtesse from Pichon-Lalande in Pauillac for $49.99. This is a wine you can age like a grand vin! It has the guts to go twenty years if you want it to and it’s absolutely jam-packed with dark berries, oak, cigar box, minerality, and more. And it’s a fraction of what you’d pay for real deal 2009 Pichon-Lalande.

- The 2012 Les Fiefs de Lagrange presents an elegant, finessed, and drinkable version of St. Julien for a reasonable $29.99; about half the price of the standard Lagrange. Brimming with dark plum fruit alongside coffee bean and cocoa. There’s a lot to love here and it’s another great example of how approachable and splendid 2012 was as a vintage. 

- The 2012 Les Griffons de Pichon-Baron for $39.99 is perhaps one of the best and boldest second wine selections we currently have in stock and it represents the heralded Pauillac property quite well. Loaded with rich fruit, spice, anise, and earth, this is an absolute stunner for the price and the best part is you can drink it now, or cellar it for a decade. 

If you like Bordeaux and you like to drink well just about every night of the week (like I do), then you've got to have a second wine strategy in effect. Now that you know the secret, please don't go telling everyone you know. Leave a few extra bottles for me and my co-workers! Searching out these little gems isn't as easy or as glamorous as it sounds! We need as much as we can get for ourselves.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll