Would you like to know a secret? A secret that would allow you to enjoy the top Bordeaux growths at a third of their price? Then, if you don’t know already, start looking out for Bordeaux’s “second vins”. These are the châteaux’s second labels, wines that are made from “rejected” cuvées not deemed good enough for a château’s primary product, its grand vin. There is no legal definition for a second wine, and there is no law stating that owners must produce one. Second wines simply grew from the 18th Century practice of producers not wishing to waste their leftover wine once the permitted grand vin quotas were met, or for when there was an unfavourable vintage and they preferred not to release a grand vin at all and risk diluting their reputation with an inferior product.

Most of the top Médoc châteaux have been blending a second wine for decades, some, even centuries, such as Château Latour and its Les Forts de Latour. The Château Léoville-Las Cases produced its first Clos du Marquis (now Le Petit Lion de Marquis de las Cases) in 1904 and Château Margaux, its Pavillon Rouge in 1908. But today, all of the classified estates produce a second wine. Even the crus bourgeois have joined in.

It is up to the owner/winemaker to interpret their conception of their second vins. The grape varieties are all vinified separately, and within each variety, the different parcels of lesser quality or of younger vines of each variety are also vinified separately. It is at the blending stage that the magic happens. We must liken Bordeaux vineyards to a huge cookbook with each appellation having its own recipe, and within each appellation, each château having again, their own personal touch or ingredient. For example, because it has been found that Merlot does better in the soils and microclimates of the Right Bank appellations (Pomerol, St. Èmilion), it is French law that Merlot be the dominant grape in that recipe. The winemaker is free to use all Merlot or any varying proportion above the set governmental percentage and to add proportions of the other permitte grape varieties in order to find a blend that best represents the desired style of the château.

How to Buy

The greatest difference between a grand vin and a second, is usually going to be the age of the vines. Vines younger than 10–12 years yield grapes that do not have enough concentration and ageing ability required by a grand vin, and they will make a wine that matures earlier, usually within 5–7 years. The best fruit is produced by vines that are 20–30 years old. This is why a second vin can give you a glimmer of the greatness that the grand vin promises to achieve: the younger vines may not be considered as grown up, but they still have the same breeding. Another factor is that the second wine will be treated to a less expensive élevage. For example, it will be put into older barrels and not new barriques.

The general rule is, the better the year, the less second wine will be made, but the better it will be. The second wine of a good year will usually be very comparable to the grand vin. In less good years, the differences in quality between the grand and second vins will be more apparent. The trick is to buy second wines in top vintages. By doing so, you can find second vins from 4th or 5th growths that are better than the grand vins of the higher growths from bad years – and at just a third of their cost. That is a pretty neat trick, isn’t it?

And here is another secret: due to the run of good harvests in the past decade, there is a glut of excellent second wines from the first growths available. Prices have fallen in the past 18 months, so now is the time to buy. But shhhh… don’t tell!

Compare and Contrast

Here’s a listing of five grand vins compared to five second vins so you can see how much money you could save.

Grand Vin: Margaux, 1er cru, Margaux , €700 / $1050 / £540; Second Vin: Pavillon Rouge, €125 / $220 / £200

Grand Vin: Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, 2ème cru, Pauillac, €140 / $190 / £125; Second Vin: Reserve de la Comtesse, €30 / $60 / £35

Grand Vin: Giscours, 3ème cru, Margaux, €40 / $75 / £40; Second Vin: La Sirène de Giscours, €20 / $30 / £20

Grand Vin: Talbot, 4ème cru, Saint-Julien,  €45 / $70 / £45;  Second Vin: Connétable de Talbot, €23 / $30 / £16

Grand Vin: Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5ème cru, Pauillac,  €70 / $110 / £70; Second Vin: Lacoste Borie, €20 / $30 / £20

For a list of all the classified estates and their second wines, visit Bordeaux’s Second Wines on www.thewinelady.com

Originally published in the October-November 2013 issue of France Today