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Second thoughts: Bordeaux second wines

While no one would criticise the Bordelais’ continuing quest for quality, is the increasing trend towards second – and now third – wines good for consumers? Jane Anson reports

The cult of second wines in Bordeaux is regularly ascribed to the relentless search for quality. Over the past few decades, grape selection has become ever more stringent, with fewer grapes making it into a château’s principal bottling (or first wine, aka the château’s traditional bread and butter).

This may be because a château has bought new vines from a neighbouring estate that are not yet up to scratch, or because they have planted young vines that need to reach maturity, or simply because they have identified parts of their original vineyard that just don’t deliver the goods. Whatever the reason, it has become increasingly common for the larger estates to release at least two wines under versions of the same name – so, to take the most famous example, Château Lafite Rothschild for the first wine and Carruades de Lafite for the same estate’s second wine.

For us drinkers, this should all be pretty reassuring. If we are going to spend a significant amount on a bottle of Bordeaux, it’s great to know that the winemakers care about what we are opening. I remember Philippe Bascaules, then estate director of Château Margaux, telling me a few years ago ‘Not even a wrinkle on the label is okay any more.’

Christophe Salin, managing director of Lafite- Rothschild, says that Lafite made 100,000 more bottles of first wine in the 1970s than it does currently, with the first wine easily accounting for the majority of the production in every vintage. These days the château tends to make more Carruades than Lafite, ‘mainly because we have done a lot of new planting, and we are waiting for the vines to reach their full complexity,’ explains Salin. At the prices asked for both first and second wine, it is essential for quality to be unimpeachable.

In 2013, Lafite used just 30% of the overall grape harvest for the first wine, while in 2011 that figure was 38% first wine (50% second wine and 12% declassified into its DBR generic wine, Légende). Even in 2010, one of the best years for quality in decades, only 40% went into Lafite’s first wine, but a full 55% went into Carruades, and only 5% was declassified.

Pricing pressure

It’s hardly news to say that this search for quality has had an effect upon pricing. Ten years ago, nearly all second wines were available for between £15 and £30, a fraction of the first wine costs. But as the quantities of first wines have shrunk, prices have risen… and right alongside them, the prices of second wines. A quick look at the 2010 vintage tells you how much things have changed. Le Petit Lion (Léoville-Las Cases) would now set you back £52, Echo de Lynch-Bages £37, Les Forts de Latour £210, Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux £220, Petit Cheval £225, Chapelle d’Ausone £207, Carruades de Lafite, £230. I could go on, but you get the picture… these are prices that even the first wines would not have dreamed of asking only a few years ago.

Fair enough, perhaps, if this is all a necessary safeguard of quality. And yet why is it that Château Pontet-Canet manages to make breathtaking wines while producing routinely 90% first wine from its 81 hectares (ha) of Pauillac vines? Or Léoville Barton with around 80% first wine, and Cos d’Estournel with around 75% first wine? How does Château St-Pierre manage to make such wonderful wine without a second wine at all? Is it a coincidence that both St-Pierre and Philippe ­Castéja’s Château Batailley are among the most reasonably priced 1855 classified growths when neither of them make a second wine?

And how on earth did châteaux manage to produce such great vintages before second wines became common? Anthony Barton, proprietor of Léoville Barton, makes a good point when he says: ‘We produced some jolly good wines doing things that in the current era would make our oenologist scream. Grapes into one big wooden barrel, crushed by foot in the field… But we made vintages such as 1945 and 1947. The other day I found an invoice for a fiddler who played while we stomped. Now you need velvet gloves for touching the grapes. ’

Precise vinification

The reality is that great vintages were, of course, far less reliable before technology improved, and removing sub-standard grapes is a huge part of that. But isn’t there a logic to the premise that as you work better in the vineyards, grow healthier grapes and use more precise vinification methods in the winery, the quantity of the good stuff should go up rather than down anyway? Certainly that is what the Tesserons at Pontet Canet believe. ‘We have always maintained that wine is made in the vineyard and not the winery,’ says co-owner Melanie, ‘And our long years of work are showing their fruits. With such magnificent terroir, in time it is our objective to make 100% grand vin’.

It seems to me that the question that nobody is asking is this – has the obsession with ‘perfection’ in the first wine gone too far, to the detriment of pricing and customer satisfaction? Is it really about perfection, or is it about keeping the price of the first wine high? And is it time that somebody stopped and rethought the whole approach?

Harnessing the young vines

Max Lalondrelle at Berry Bros & Rudd says: ‘A lot of properties have expanded enormously over the past decade, buying every scrap of land they could find. However, these pieces of land were producing €10 wines before they bought them and therefore cannot be included in the grands vins, so perhaps they produce a lot more second wine as a way to make use of the new acquisition and turn a €10 wine in to a €50-€100 wine by adding the new brand and some quality winemaking.’

Undoubtedly, this explains a lot, but there are exceptions. Cantemerle has gone from 20ha in 1981 to 94ha now. But as with Pontet-Canet, director Philippe Dambrine shows that investment in the vineyard can mean more, not less, first wine. Cantemerle currently makes about 10% less second wine than it did a decade ago (so 30% compared with 40% in 2004). This is because ‘There are more good vines coming into play that were planted in the 1980s. The vines have reached maturity, giving more intensity and complexity to the final wine and so quality has improved.’

It’s hard to know whether or not there’s a right answer to this debate. You can find examples of châteaux making a ‘second selection’ of their grapes as far back as the 17th century. Both Haut-Brion and Margaux, among others, recorded which areas of the vineyard produced the best quality grapes, and vinified them separately. In the first half of the 20th century, another wave of second wines came along – Les Forts de Latour, for example, first appeared in 1906 (under a different name). But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that second wines became routine. This was when they actively became marketed as an ‘entry point’ to the first wine, so changing their name to reflect their parentage. This is still happening – in 2008, Château Haut-Bages Averous, the second wine of Lynch Bages was re-baptised Echo de Lynch Bages.

Access to quality

More than having the weight of history on their side, it’s certainly difficult to tell any winemaker that they should make more first wine, and thus potentially reduce quality with the sole aim of lowering prices. Second wines in good vintages such as 2009 and 2010 offer brilliant value for money. And the idea of second wines offering access to this quality without waiting for 20 years to open the bottle is also hugely worthwhile. Most second wines (I’m thinking of the brilliant Alter Ego de Palmer, Gravette de Certan, Le Petit Lion and many others) can be approached within five years of bottling, compared with 10 years or more for the main wine.

But we are now seeing a new step that will inevitably maintain the higher prices of second wines: the introduction of third wines. Latour’s Le Pauillac de Château Latour dates to the 1970s but recently it has been joined by, among others, Margaux de Château Margaux and Le St-Estèphe de Montrose. There is a reasonable argument that this allows these famous brands to still make it on to restaurant lists around the world at affordable prices. But are the châteaux wise to put lower quality wines in front of sommeliers and high-end diners? Barton, who has increased production of La Réserve de Léoville Barton over recent years, sounds a note of caution. ‘While I don’t believe that you can go too far in the search for perfection in wine, you can certainly go too far in search for profits’.

Aymeric de Gironde, director of Château Cos d’Estournel, agrees. ‘We have made lower quantities of first wine in the last few vintages because the weather has been so challenging, but we are lucky enough to have great terroir at Cos, which means that routinely 75% of what we produce goes into first wine. I don’t see the point of slicing up the pie too much, and we have no plans for a third wine at Cos. Partly because if you make a third wine, the logical thing is to make a fourth one… and where do you stop?’

Written by Jane Anson

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