Just a few weeks ago, I attended a small tasting of second-label Bordeaux wines organized by the importer/retailer Millesima. They were the red Connétable de Talbot 2008, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008, La Fugue de Nénin 2002, and the white L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2011. It was a very pleasant affair, low key, no pressure, just a chance to taste and evaluate a handful of wines – a very welcome haven on a drizzly, chilly New York afternoon.
The L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc and the Talbot Connétable especially stood out, while La Fugue de Nénin seemed tired: 2002 was not a very great vintage, and 13 years is pushing the envelope for second-label wines, especially a Pomerol. But all in all, the wines were what I’ve come to expect sound second-label wines to be: good without being overwhelming, true to type without being definitive of the type. In short, pleasant wines pegged at a price point to give a nice lift of palatal pleasure and sophistication to otherwise everyday dinners.
But the occasion also started me thinking: When did second labels start becoming important? When I first got hooked on wine and began seriously exploring it, I learned on French wines. In those now long past days, wine was French, and the way into it was primarily through Bordeaux and Burgundy. I can’t recall any ready availability of second labels from Bordeaux back then – and there still aren’t any from Burgundy: So where did they come from?
Wine estates in Bordeaux – by which I mean that cluster of Médoc communes that contain the wines ranked in the famous 1855 listing and their satellites – have long occupied an enviable position in the wine world, whether you focus on the palatal/esthetic/craftsmanly aspect of that world or its commercial aspect. The prestige of Bordeaux may now be fading somewhat, as younger drinkers seem less and less impressed by it and more and more willing to try wines “outside the canon,” but commercially there’s no question that Bordeaux still sets the pace.
Traditionally, very few of even the most prestigious Bordeaux estates had second wines. Because their emphasis was on quality, and because many Bordeaux estates are very large (Château Margaux, for instance, has 80 hectares – that’s almost 200 acres – of vines), they often had grapes that were not judged of high enough quality to be part of the wine that would bear the château’s name. In most cases, back then, those grapes were sold off, usually to négociants who blended the grapes of several estates to make either village wines – a shipper’s Margaux or St. Julien – or, a step down the scale, a Médoc rouge, or lower still, a Bordeaux rouge.
As wine boomed in the last quarter of the 20th century, winemakers realized that they didn’t have to sell those rejected grapes on the bulk market. They could instead exploit the prestige of their estate’s reputation by making them into another wine – not the same quality as the flagship wine, to be sure, but similar to it, and offering some of the pleasures of their great wine at a lower price.
You can view this in either of two ways:
- as an enlightened gesture to make at least the shadow of a great wine available to drinkers who might otherwise never be able to afford to taste it, or
- as a crass piece of commercialism that generates a lot more income from something of otherwise little value.
I suspect the motivation is in almost every case mixed, though I doubt altruism was ever the dominant engine. Forgive my cynicism, please.
At any rate, as long as all the grapes in the lesser wine originate on the property, a second-label wine is entitled to the same appellation as the château wine. Only when those grapes are mixed with others from other properties does a wine get demoted to village, Médoc, or Bordeaux status. That declension is what happened, for instance, to Mouton Cadet. That wine began its life as a second label of the famous Château Mouton Rothschild (more than 82 hectares of vines, for the record), and has since become a separate enterprise with only a nominal connection to the great estate, whose second label is now Le Petit Mouton.
So what then does all this imply about second labels, for the canny wine lover? As prices of the Bordeaux great growths have soared into the stratosphere, some second labels can be relative bargains, a chance to taste decent Bordeaux at fairly reasonable prices. But they can all too often fall to mediocrity. Usually they are vinified from an estate’s youngest vines or poorest-performing parcels, so their potential is limited from the start. All they’ve got going for them is the location of those vines and parcels – the whole Médoc, after all, is essentially a single terroir – and the fact (or the hope) that they received the same attention as the rest of the estate’s wines. Only by accident, and in a truly exceptional vintage (of which there are fewer than the Bordeaux hype machine would have you believe), will these wines ever approach greatness. Still, in a good year, you should be able to find a number of winners in their ranks. If you love Bordeaux, it’s certainly worth the hunt.