Shrewd drinkers who can’t afford wines from the legendary estates of Bordeaux have discovered there’s another way to pull corks on bottles from these great terroirs: second wines.
Second wines, a category historically associated with the best Bordeaux estates, are wines made from material that didn’t quite make the final cut to be included in the expensive estate, or first, wine. These wines typically sell for half the price, or even less. Yet both come from the same esteemed estate, made from grapes grown in the same terroir, and created by the same winemaking team.
Further, owners of great wineries want their second wines to taste almost as good as their first wines.
“We think of our second wine, Connétable de Talbot, as the little brother to our estate wine,” says Jean-Michel Laporte, winemaker at Château Talbot in the Saint-Julien region of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.
“Our second wines open the doors to the first wines,” says Ludovic Fradin, commercial director for Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan, one of a handful of Bordeaux estates that makes red and white first and second wines.
On the Right Bank, Nicolas Seillan agrees. “If our second wine, Les Cadrans, doesn’t perform well, it would be disastrous to the reputation of Château Lassègue,” the estate where he is general manager.
Then there is Château Palmer, whose second wine, Alter Ego, is intended “to be an alternate expression” of the estate’s terroir rather than a secondary label, says CEO Thomas Duroux. Nevertheless, it costs only one-fourth as much.
But while the second wines taste similar to the firsts, they are generally a little fruitier, have fewer oak flavors, are less tannic, and are meant to be drunk earlier. They perhaps don’t last quite as long in the cellar as the firsts, although they can still be quite good a decade after they are made.
Often the sections of the estates chosen to go into the second wine are chosen not because the terroir is not as good there, but because that is where younger replacement vines have been planted. Their grapes will eventually go into the first wine when the vineyard matures.
Château Talbot has 272 acres in one block, for example, “and the terroir is fairly homogeneous,” says Laporte. “Fifty percent of the blocks always go into the estate, 30% usually goes into the second, and 20% can go either way.”
Seillan says while a portion of Lassègue’s second wine comes from designated, select hillside blocks, part comes from batches of the estate’s many mini-cuvées that are selected out from blending batches chosen to make up the estate Lassègue.
The mixture of grape varieties in Bordeaux may also vary between first and second wines. “Connétable is usually about 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Smith Haut Lafitte’s Fradin, “while the estate wine is usually about 65% Cabernet.” Merlot is valued for its fruitiness and early maturation, while Cabernet is valued for its structure and longevity.
In the cellar, second wines usually spend less time in the barrels, especially new oak barrels, and are usually released for the market a year or so earlier than the estate wine.
The value of a second
“I believe all second wines are of interest,” says Ingrid Miossec, U.S. marketing manager for Millesima, the French exporting firm which also has a wine shop in Manhattan, “but the problem is that many of them are produced in low quantities.” That said, seconds’ pedigrees and low prices make them popular among restaurant sommeliers, because they offer something affordable for the wine lists.
Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., says seconds sell well and that he often offers them as futures; that is, they are sold in advance while still in barrel, even though they won’t be bottled and shipped for a year or more. Typically, the pre-release price is better.
But how cheap is cheap? Usually, it’s possible to buy at least two, and as many as four, bottles of the second wine for the price of one first, although that gap has been shrinking among the top-rated Bordeaux’s First Growths, the historic designation for a handful of châteaux.
“Twelve years ago, it was possible to buy 5.6 bottles of second wines for every bottle of the grand vin, on average,” says Justin Gibbs, co-founder of London’s Liv-ex wine exchange that tracks prices of the world’s most-expensive wines. “This ratio has now halved to 2.8, pointing to the steady rise of the seconds.” The most expensive second relative to the first is Mouton Rothschild (1.9 bottles), while the best value is Haut-Brion (3.9 bottles).
From other regions, Bernstein recommends the second wines of the Super Tuscans. “The second wines of Ornellaia and Sassicaia are very good,” while Miossec suggests Overture from Opus One in Napa Valley and Cadet de la Bégude in Provence.
5 second wines to try:
Note: Bottle prices may vary from state to state.
The wine has intriguing gamey aromas with mixed flavors of piquant, dried berries, and hints of ripe plum — lean, but not austere, with flavorful tannins.
The wine has briary/berry aromas with slightly tannic blackberry flavors and savory notes that blend perfectly into chewy finishing tannins. Drinkable now, but will be a cellar-worthy slow ager.
This is sold as a future, meaning it’s not released yet.
Medium-bodied with green fruitiness and light flavors of mature barrels, the wine has some metallic minerality and a long finish.
A bargain — complex with elegant dark cherry fruitiness that pops up mid-palate to blend with dried, herbal savory notes and lovely tannins, it’s still a baby.