Friday, 6 March 2015

Do Second Wines Merit a Second Look?

At a recent dinner, I overheard two friends having a discussion. The first was lamenting that a product made by the company where friend #2 worked had continued to rise in price even though the raw material cost had been dropping. To which the second friend replied that the first law of economics was that supply and demand determine the price of a product, not its production cost.

You don’t need to look very far to find similar parallels in the wine world. The eye-watering prices of Bordeaux first growths have placed them so far out of the reach of the average wine drinker that I like to think of these as luxury products rather than something that can be enjoyed on a daily basis. The production cost of a bottle of classed growth Bordeaux is in the area of €30, but the final price can reach four digit figures. However, for those who aspire for a taste of these vinous treasures and are not beneficiaries of a trust fund, there is hope: second wines.

Just as how luxury brands have created a diffusion line (think Marc by Marc Jacobs or Emporio Armani), wineries produce a more affordable range (called second wines) made from grapes that are judged as not quite making the mark for the grand vin. Think Les Forts de Latour (from Château Latour), Écho de Lynch Bages (from Château Lynch-Bages) and Les Pagodes de Cos (from Cos d’Estournel). There are several reasons why the grapes may have been declassified into the second wine – they came from younger vines, or from less distinguished vineyards, or the vintage in a particular year may not have been as generous. The winemaking method for second wines is often the same as for the grand vin, but the maturation process may be shorter (a longer maturation in oak barrels is more expensive, and also requires time for the oak flavours to integrate with the fruit when bottled). As a result, second wines have an earlier drinking window and shorter lifespan than the primary wine.

For the château the benefit is obvious – a secondary source of income that does not dilute the image of the grand vin. By improving the selection process for the primary wine, they can achieve higher standards of quality and maintain its prestigious image. For the consumer, it offers access to a prestigious label at a fraction of the cost. However, second wines have become so successful that, inevitably, their prices have risen in tandem with the grand vin. Some producers are even starting to produce third wines, such as Le Pauillac de Château Latour, which will still set you back northwards of SGD120. A pretty penny indeed, considering what you could get in Spain or Australia. But as I’ve said at the beginning of this article, it boils down to supply and demand. The fact that Bordeaux has managed to maintain its premium pricing even in weaker vintages such as in the past three years proves that wine lovers still appreciate a bottle of fine claret.  

Tasting notes: (from an event with In Vino Veritas, a newly established wine merchant in Singapore specialising mostly in second wines)

Blasson d’Issan 2012 – The second wine of Bordeaux third growth Château d'Issan. Lots of toasty oak on this one. Palate shows beautiful fruit concentration and nuances of milk chocolate. Balanced with juicy acidity.

Réserve de La Comtesse 2011 – The second wine of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Medium ruby. Toasty nose, oak apparent but very high quality. Blackcurrant on the palate with a roasted bean finish. Resolved, sweet tannins, mid length.

L'Héritage de Chasse Spleen 2011 - Mid ruby robe. Enticing aromas, fresh and clean. Intense black cherry, garrigue, incense notes. Forward and satisfying palate, approachable with medium length. Light, early maturing.

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