More than a hint of greatness?

The idea of the ‘second wine of an estate appears to have started in Bordeaux with its large estates and volumes of wine.  The very best grapes (hopefully from a good majority of the estate’s vineyards) will go into the grand vin leaving the producer with a problem with the remnant.  If this was put into the top wine the quality could suffer or the producer would have more wine at the top price which they might not be able to sell.  Merely selling the remaining grapes to the local cooperative for a low price is an unattractive proposition. Hence the market for second wines, typically from younger vines or less favoured vineyard sites. They should have some of the quality of the grand vin, but at a much more affordable price The questions for the wine drinker are do they have more than a hint of greatness? and are they good value for money when you compare them with other wines of the same price? And where Bordeaux led the way with second wines, other regions have followed if in a variety of ways to suit the local situation. 

Second wines was the theme of Andover Wine Friends’ October Fine Wine Supper.  With wines sourced from the Wine Society, Berry Bros and our own taster’s collections, we tried 10 wines which in some sense could be called ‘second wines’. 

The super seconds

Fittingly enough the best example of a super second came from Bordeaux, though a new wine from Languedoc ran it pretty close.  Réserve de la Comtesse, AC

Bordeaux blendsIMG_6067
Pauillac, 2004 is the second wine of the top quality second growth with such a long chateau name that it is affectionately known as Pichon-Lalande.  While most Pauillac is tannic and austere, the Réserve, like the grand vin itself, is elegant, even sensual, with its attractive black and red fruit and, at nine years, still with prominent tannins. In a couple of years time it will be at its peak and be mighty impressive.  Sadly, the let down of the evening was also from Bordeaux, the second wine of first growth Ch. Haut-Brion being corked and undrinkable – TCA is no respecter of class. 

Southern splendourBut these days Bordeaux and the other traditional regions of France do not have an uncontested pre-eminence.  The Languedoc is mainly known for volume and good value for money but there are also an increasing number of really top wines of which La Flors de la Pèira, Terrasses de Larzac, Coteaux de Languedoc 2009 is certainly one.  The style could not be more different – big, bold black fruit with deep coffee and cinnamon notes, mouth-filling but balanced, and held together with a skeleton of acidity and ripe tannin.  Mighty and mighty impressive. 

AC Pouilly-Fumé, Ch. de Tracy, 2011 was a wine that completely split our group depending on whether or not you like the grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc.  But aside from the lively debate the quality shone through – lively elderflower and green fruit on the young wine with crisp acidity. An older bottle, 2008, showed a more muted peach and green fruit palate. is this a scond wine? not in the classic sense as this is the main offering of the chateau, but there is the small production, top wine, Haut Densité. 

Second class?

On the old Indian Railways I travelled on as a child, there were three classes of carriage and so ‘second class’ was still something of a premium, not just a put down.  Our next group of wines were very good but not outstanding. Some of them may have just been too young and would improve with more time in the bottle.  The best of the rest was probably Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2010, a very fine AC Côtes-du-Rhône or baby Châteauneuf if you prefer.  this stands out for its high proportion (30%) of the demanding but classy Mourvèdre in the otherwise Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault blend: fine perfume and raspberry to plum fruit, high acidity and grippy tannins for medium longevity.

WhitesBordeaux blends
Two wines were in the ‘drunk too soon’ category, interestingly both from the new world. We would rarely drink a Bordeaux blend from, er, Bordeaux that was only a couple of years old but because of the more overt fruit of Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Margaret River, Cullen 2011 that is what we did.   Similarly, Chardonnay, Nelson, Neudorf, 2011 was of a high quality but at the moment the fruit, the lees stirring and the oak are noticeable because they have not had time to knit together.

NebbioloVega 2 
Finally there were two dry wines which were an unlikely couple.  Langhe Nebbiolo, Prinsiòt, Fratelli Alessandria, 2010 was entirely true to type – austere, savoury, tannic – but didn’t really hint at what great Barolo can do. By contrast Tinto Valbuena 5°, Ribera del Deuro, Vega Sicilia 1995 had perhaps gone over the hill. From the legendary Spanish winery Vega Sicilia this wine was under two decades old but its most noticeable feature was the rather sharp acidity, the fruit appearing to have departed.  

SweetiesTwo sweet wines followed. Neither of them was really a second wine.  Lions de Suduiraut, AC Sauternes, 2009 is in effect the third wine of Ch. Suduiraut after the top wine named of course after the chateau and then the Castelau de Suduiraut which we had tasted back in August.  Made for the younger drinker (it is said) it is simple and delicious but lacks the complexity and weight of its elder siblings.  By contrast, Prestige, 15 ans d’âge, Vin Doux Naturels, Mas Amiel is a brilliant cocktail of old toffee and cooked fruit with a lovely sweetness.  It is definitely not a second wine as Mas Amiel produce a huge range which it would be difficult to characterize.  

On this small showing second wines are definitely worth pursuing – but you have to get all the factors right – especially age and quality – if you are to get that hint of greatness at an approachable price.  

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