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November 26, 2008

Seconds, Please?

A bottle of Lafite for a fifth of the price? Makers of the world's most coveted wines make more versions that are younger, softer, and vastly more affordable.

By AMY CORTESE

To the trained eye of a winemaker, a vineyard is a tapestry of dozens of micro-sites: This hillside parcel gets the best sun, that one has distinctively chalky soil, another patch nearby has been replanted with new vines. The art of winemaking is in coaxing the best out of each parcel, and then blending them together to create a harmonious whole.

That means vinifying dozens of unique batches in the cellar and then bottling the ones that turn out best. For wine lovers, it can mean great bargains. Batches that don't make the final cut—even though their contents were grown and vinified side by side with the highest quality batches—are often bottled under a separate label, or "second wine."

These aren't low-quality cast-offs. The second wines are generally made from younger vines and are aged for less time, but they share many characteristics with their famous siblings. Think of them as softer, more approachable versions of the first wine—at a fraction of the price. A bottle of Latour may cost a couple thousand dollars; the chateau's second label, Les Forts de Latour, runs $275 for the excellent 2005 vintage. (
See some of the best in our slideshow.)

The second wines of the top Châteaux, including Les Forts, Château Margaux' Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux, and Château Haut-Brion's Bahans Haut-Brion (renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion starting with the 2007 vintage), can be better than the "first" wines of lesser estates.  

"Second wines are representative of the first wine, but at a better value and can be drunk earlier," says Roger Dagorn, wine director of Chanterelle in New York and a Master of Wine. "That's the beauty of these wines."
 
Second wines are most closely associated with Bordeaux, where they were made as far back as the 1800s. The practice became widespread in the late 1980s, when competition and a renewed focus on quality drove winemakers to be more selective, using only the very best fruit and batches of wine for their gran vins. Sometimes just a small portion of the vineyard's output would make the final cuvée. 

Rather than sell the leftover wine to bulk dealers, the châteaux began blending second wines. This was profitable for the producers, and gave customers a more affordable way to get a taste of the signature wine. 

"Second wines are some of the best values coming out of Bordeaux," says Jeff Zacharia, president of wine retailer Zachys. A 2005 Carruades de Lafite Rothschild ($268 at Zachys), for example, is a bargain compared with a Lafite of the same vintage ($1,500), especially considering the latter won't be at its prime for years to come. Carraudes is less complex, perhaps, but a serious, full-bodied wine. 

Virtually every Bordeaux producer today makes a second wine. Zacharia points to La Réserve de Léoville-Barton ($50), the second to Léoville Barton ($250 for the 2005); Les Fiefs de Lagrange ($27), second to Lagrange ($75 for the '05); and Les Hauts de Pontet ($55), second to Pontet-Canet ($190 for the '05), as great values. Regions from Australia to Spain's Priorat are offering second wines as well, though many don't aggressively market them, so as not to detract from the premier offerings.



As in Bordeaux, some second wines are more faithful to the first wine than others. Blends may differ, and some portion of a second wine's fruit may be sourced from distinct areas.


In Italy, where the convention has been to produce a riserva with the choicest grapes in exceptional years, second wines are not common. Leave it to Italy's rebels, the Super Tuscans, to buck the trend.


Two of the top makers of Super Tuscans offer high-quality seconds. Tenuta dell' Ornellaia was the first in the region to come out with a second wine, in 1997. Called Le Serre Nuove ($50), it is made alongside the estate's namesake cuvée, which sells for three times that amount. "The ultimate goal is to make a better first wine," says Axel Heinz, Ornellaia's winemaker. "But," he cautions, "it needs to be a good wine on its own." Tenuta San Guido, which makes the legendary Sassicaia, uses some of the leftover juice for its Guidalberto ($50).


In northeast Spain, second wines have been a key part of the strategy of the Priorat's new guard, who have over the last three decades transformed the area from a sleepy backwater into one of Spain's most exciting regions. Take Clos Erasmus, whose Grenache-dominant blend snagged 100 points from the Wine Advocate for the 2005 and 2004 vintages. A small percentage of the tiny vineyard's grapes make the final cut; much of the rest go into Laurel, a similar blend made from mostly younger vines. It is also hard to find, but at $50, just a quarter of the top wine's price.  


In California, there are plenty of low-cost second labels that have little or nothing in common with the estate's flagship wine. But few true seconds. Napa cult cab-maker Harlan Estate is an exception. Its second wine, the Maiden, comes from the same Oakville vineyard and is treated the same in the cellar, until, at 15 months, the final selection is made. If your taste runs to big California cabs, the Maiden ($215) offers hints of the signature Harlan Estate, for a relative song. When Harlan is allocated next spring, it will cost around $600 a bottle, a price that has been known to triple on the open market. "It's a tremendous way to get an insight into the unique character of our little hillside," says Don Weaver, director of Harlan Estates.


And save a bundle, while you're at.

 

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