Neal Martin: Second wines of the great Bordeaux Châteaux: One of the world’s most influential wine critics reveals his insights

Nothing in wine is more revealing than a blind tasting, both in professional circles and among friends. At one memorable event, among many distinguished Masters of Wine, I scored the Second Wine of Château Lafite Rothschild higher than the Grand Vin itself. Embarrassment turned to quiet satisfaction when some of my fellow tasters did the same. This partially answers the first question about Second Wines: can they surpass Grand Vins? In some cases, they can, and for a great deal less money. But what exactly is a Second Wine?

Known as Deuxieme Vin or Second Label, a Second Wine—common in all wine regions, but most prevalent in Bordeaux—is the produce of inferior vines or inferior vats. The definition sounds more pejorative than intended, rather as an Aston Martin DB7 may be called ‘inferior’ to an Aston Martin ‘Vantage’, or black truffles ‘inferior’ to white.

Inferior vines are those where perhaps the soil is too fertile, producing foliage rather than fruit; or the vines are too young to produce physiologically ripe, complex berries; or their orientation to the sun is less favourable. The fruit of these vines detracts from the final wine after blending and, assuming the winemaker strives for quality, he has two options: to sell the inferior wine in bulk, or to vinify, mature and bottle it separately and label it under a different name: a Second Wine.

After fermentation, usually in the January or February following the harvest, each vat will be meticulously appraised by the winemaker to determine which will become the Châteaux’s Grand Vin, which the Second Wine, and which should be sold off without a name. After blending, the Second Wine usually undergoes a shorter period of barrel-maturation with less new oak. This makes Second Wines less expensive, but also less tannic and more approachable.

Although such practices reduce the quantity of Grand Vin, and with it potential income, the increase in quality and allied higher prices should compensate. The affluence of the Bordeaux elite has enabled some châteaux to take this to an extreme level, for example Château Lafite-Rothschild 2000, where 64% of the crop was declassified as the Second Wine or sold off. No wonder some winemakers now say that their Second Wines surpass the Grand Vins of the past.

Not all châteaux produce a Second Wine. Some—including many Right Bank châteaux—are too small, others, including Château Batailley, prefer not to do so. In fact, the proliferation of Second Wines is a recent phenomenon. A few prescient estates began the practice early in the 20th century. Clos du Marquis from Château Leoville Las-Cases debuted with the 1902 vintage, and Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux appeared in 1908, before disappearing again until the 1970s.

The current explosion of Second Wines was masterminded by two of the most influential oenologists of the last two decades: Professor Emile Peynaud and Michel Rolland. They understood that not only does a Second Wine improve the Grand Vin, it provides a relatively inexpensive introduction to the style of the estate’s wine. Christian Seely, managing director of Château Pichon Baron, says of his Second Wine, Les Tourelles de Longueville, ‘I think of it as an ambassador for Pichon, so it is vital that it carries the signature of Pichon quality and character, even though because of its encepagement (the grape varieties that make up the wine) it is more supple, evolves quicker and so can be drunk much younger than a Pichon.’

Which Second Wines should one seek? As a guide, a winemaker who cares about the quality of his Grand Vin will also care for his Second, viewing it as part of the estate’s produce, rather than a means of disposing of inferior wine. Unsurprisingly, the First Growths offer the most auspicious Second Wines. Many would say that Les Forts de Latour is the best, arguably equivalent to a Second Growth. Produced from three ascribed plots of the vineyard, from vines aged less than 12, in vats deemed unfit for the Grand Vin, it is an excellent introduction to the great Château Latour itself.

It can be cellared long-term, for vintages such as 1982 and 1990 are still drinking, but recent vintages offer better value since proprietor Frederic Engerer has sought to improve its quality, declassifying more of the Grand Vin into the Second Wine. The Les Forts de Latour 2000 is ripe and sumptuous, though my pick would be the Les Forts de Latour 2002, a wine imbued with Latour’s robust tannins and poise, from a vintage that has been somewhat overlooked. The only caveat is that the price has increased in recent years. It sells for about £xxx a bottle.

Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux is another superlative Second Wine, and less inflationary than Les Forts de Latour. As a guide, Pavillon Rouge can be one-tenth of the price of the Grand Vin and is created at the blending stage rather than from a particular part of the vineyard. Château Margaux 1996 is perhaps the greatest wine of that decade, therefore it stands to reason that the Second Wine is also special. Pavillon Rouge 1996 is exquisitely perfumed with a hint of truffles and a beguiling femininity, its only caveat is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find. The Pavillon 2001 and 2002 are highly recommended, both Second Wines full of panache.

Two more, Carruades de Lafite and Bahans de Château Haut Brion, lack the kudos of the aforementioned wines, but Carruades can be superb and the 1996, 1999 and ravishing 2003 will complement any supper with style. Château Mouton-Rothschild’s Second Wine, Le Petit Mouton, introduced in 1993, deserves its name. Produced in minuscule quantities, it is rarely seen outside Bordeaux. However I have heard that recent changes at the property will come with a much-needed review of their Second Wine, so perhaps it will not be Petit much longer.

Elsewhere in Bordeaux, where do the real gems lie? In my experience it is with the Second and Third Growths. Within Pauillac, the two Pichons, Pichon-Lalande’s Reserve de la Comtesse and Pichon-Baron’s Les Tourelles de Longueville, stand out. Reserve de le Comtesse has been consistent throughout the last decade in good vintages and bad, a supple, lithe Pauillac that maintains the Grand Vin’s cedary character, though more lush and with a little extra spice. As with others, the Second Wine has been improving further in recent years: the 1996 and 2002 have stood out. Les Tourelles was more inconsistent until Christian Seely took charge: the 2000, 2001 and 2003 offer a great introduction to the delights of Château Pichon Baron.

But we must head south to Saint Julien to find one of the greatest Second Wines: Clos du Marquis from Château Leoville Las-Cases, which offers astounding value for money. It is ostensibly a separate wine, almost entirely sourced from a single, walled parcel of vines near the château. It has improved in recent years, the 2000 vintage being opulent with silky smooth tannins and copious layers of sweet black cherries, the 2001 vintage equally fine, with exuberant cassis and blueberry fruit. The other Saint Julien Second Wine that I recommend is Château Lagrange’s Les Fiefs de Lagrange; more rustic and lacking the breeding of Clos du Marquis, but regularly sold at very keen prices.

The communes of Margaux and Saint Estephe are less consistent in terms of Second Wines. In Margaux, two of these stand head and shoulders above the rest, ‘Alter Ego’ from Château Palmer and ‘Segla’ from Château Rauzan Segla. The Palmer team re-launched their second wine in 1998, its name inferring how they view it as an alternative, rather than inferior wine per se. Manager Thomas Duroux cited ‘finesse and elegance’ as one of the most important qualities for Alter Ego. The 2001 is one of the best I have tasted, as well as an impressive 2004 at en primeur last year. Segla deserves more recognition as a great Second Wine, both the 1998 and 2000 tasting vivacious and floral after two to three years, often available at less than £100 under bond, and worth every penny.

On the Right Bank, the quantities produced are often very small and seldom seen outside Bordeaux. Names to look out for include Denis Durantou’s La Petit Eglise from the inestimable Château l’Eglise-Clinet, La Chapelle d’Ausone from Château Ausone, Le Blason de l’Evangile from Chateau l’Evangile (a fabulous 1995) and Carillon d’Angelus from Chateau l’Angelus. Just in case you were wondering: no, Château Petrus has never made a Second Wine although some misinterpret Château Lafleur-Petrus as one. Sauternes produce second wines but again, quantities are minuscule and in my experience, the quality variable since the techniques of producing botrytis-affected wines is itself unpredictable.

Should we buy Second Wines? They have several attributes. First, they are much less expensive than Grand Vins. Secondly, we do not have to wait 10 or 20 years for the wine to reach maturity, and their softer style makes them more amenable to those accustomed to New World wines. Thirdly, increasing affluence in Bordeaux means that the elite properties can apply the same draconian selection and kid-glove vinification techniques to their Second Wine as to the Grand Vin, resulting in a dramatic increase in quality over the last decade.

Few Second Wines should be cellared long-term, with the exception of Les Forts de Latour, Pavillon Rouge and Clos du Marquis, and only the first two appreciate in value. I recommend drinking the average Second Wine at from four to six years, the top wines from six to 12. Are Second Wines second best? No, they are generally fine, keenly priced ambassadors for the Grand Vin and in some cases, superior to many Grand Vins themselves.

Significant Second Wines (quality marked out of 5-stars)

First Growths

Château Latour: Les Forts de Latour (*****)

Château Lafite-Rothschild: Carruades de Lafite (****)

Château Haut Brion: Bahans de Haut Brion (***)

Château Margaux: Pavillon Rouge de Chateau Margaux (*****)

Château Mouton-Rothschild: Le Petit Mouton (**)

Left Bank

Château Cos d’Estournel: Les Pagodes de Cos (***)

Château Montrose: La Dame de Montrose (***)

Château Lynch Bages: Haut Bages Averous (***)

Château Pichon Lalande: Reserve de la Comtesse (****)

Château Pichon Baron: Les Tourelles de Longueville (***)

Château Leoville Barton: Reserve de Leoville Barton (**)

Château Leoville Las-Cases: Clos du Marquis (*****)

Château Leoville Poyferre: Moulin Riche (****)

Château Ducru Beaucaillou: La Croix de Beaucaillou (****)

Château Lagrange: Les Fiefs de Lagrange (**)

Château Palmer: Alter Ego de Palmer (****)

Château Rauzan Segla: Segla (***)

Château La Mission Haut-Brion: La Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion (**)

Right Bank

Château Cheval Blanc: Le Petit Cheval (***)

Château Ausone: La Chapelle d’Ausone (****)

Château l’Angelus: La Chapelle d’Angelus (***)

Château l’Eglise-Clinet: La Petit Eglise (***)

Picture shows the cellars of Château Lafite Rothschild, from which Zachys’ hosted an auction of wines to celebrate the estate’s 150th anniversary.

¶ Neal Martin, internationally acclaimed wine critic, wrote this article for Country Illustrated magazine in 2006, the year he joined the influential Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, where he took over responsibility for coverage of Bordeaux and Burgundy from Parker. In 2017 he joined Antonio Galloni’s Vinous.