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Seconds Are Coming Up First
By Ha-Kyung Choi

So what do the fashion obsessed turn to when they want Ralph Lauren’s latest, but can’t quite stomach the hefty price tag? They look to his second labels. Offered by most of the big fashion houses, second labels are a way to get the style and prestige of couture at digestible prices. Not only are you getting what’s au courant in fabrics, cut and color, but you’re also getting the guarantee of quality as well as the image of the label.

These purse-tightening times call for dollar-maximizing measures. Luckily they exist for oenophiles and fashionistas alike. If it’s hard to justify paying $100 for your favorite Bordeaux, the chateau’s second wine is a smart way to get more bang for your buck. Most of the large and prestigious houses in Bordeaux have second labels that offer excellent value and drinking qualities. These wines generally shadow the style and characteristics of the flagship wines. So at $20-$50 a bottle, you’re uncorking wine that embodies the tradition, style and excellence of a grand vin, without the grand prices.

Second wines of classified Bordeaux chateaux are those that fail to make the exacting and very high standards of the chateau. Within the boundaries of a chateau, there are great differences in terroir: some sections have better soil than others, some better exposure, and some are planted with younger vines that yield lighter, less substantial wines. They grow up to four different grape varieties, some of which perform well in one year and some in another. Each variety is harvested and vinified separately, and, once the components have been aged, the winemaker starts tasting each barrel to select the blending proportions. It is during this elimination process that second wines emerge. They are good quality, just not the best.

The production of second wines in Bordeaux can be traced back to the 8th century but became commercially important in the 1980s when increasing competition forced chateau owners to select grapes more rigorously to justify high prices. This means that up to 50 percent of the grapes are cut and discarded before they ripen so that the vines concentrate their flavors and improve quality. By harvest time, up to 25 percent of the crop may further be eliminated. The winemaker selects from what remains. Having undergone such a selective process, it should be expected that even second wines from the most prestigious chateaux will be very good.

At a recent StarChefs tasting, the following second wines were recommended by our panel of sommeliers. The next time you desire the opulence and splendor of a Bordeaux, consider these great wines that just happen to be great values as well.

L'esprit de Chevalier White 1999
Second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan
(58% Sauvignon, 42% Sémillon)
With a generous mouthful of citrus, figs and honey, this is a good quality, refreshing wine with crisp acidity that’s well balanced with the fruit. This would make an excellent pairing with a salad, fruit or a plate of young cheeses.

L'Esprit de Chevalier Red 1999
Second wine of Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan
(68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc)
Traditional in style, this wine has layers of roasted coffee, vanilla and caramel. It manages to deliver a supple, creamy texture and well-balanced tannins and acidity. Enjoy it with pistachio-crusted lamb chops or any flavorful, hearty preparation of venison or beef.

Château Tour Simard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1999
Second wine of Château Pavie 1er Grand Cru Classé St-Emilion
(70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
With hints of dried fruits and minerals on the nose, this well-structured wine exhibits dark, rich layers of boysenberry, cedar, and earth on the palate. The wine is well-balanced with good tannins and acids; a perfect match for duck confit or leg of lamb with a wild mushroom sauce.

Chevalier de Gruaud Saint-Julien 1999
Second wine of Château Gruaud Larose, 2ème Grand Cru Classé St-Julien
This dark, muscular, exceptional wine reflects the power and chewy quality of the grand vin. It doesn’t stop with the delicious dark fruit and cigar on the nose, but continues with another round of complex mineral, black raspberry, herb and violet flavors on the palate. Well-knit and concentrated, this wine is an excellent representation of its exceptional terroir. Prepare something equally substantial, such as pork roast with prunes or a rack of lamb with Mediterranean vegetables, to complement this great wine.

Clos Labère Sauternes 2000
Second wine of Château Rieussec, 1er Cru Classé Saunternes
(95% Sémillon, 2% Muscadelle, 3% Sauvignon)
This dessert wine brings an intense waft of honey and floral qualities which are matched on the palate by a buttery toastiness. Racy acidity keeps the wine alive in the mouth and the finish lasts for some time. Bring on the stinky blue cheeses!

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  Published: March 2004