Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
and courtesy of Millesima and Acker, Merrall and Condit
How to get very good wines
without breaking the bank.
Second label wine is a term most commonly associated with Bordeaux First or Second Growth wineries to refer to a wine that is produced by the winery but not used in the Grand Vin (First Label). Many of the better Old World wineries have second labels. The second – or third – label wines usually come from vineyard plots with younger vines that have been vinified separately from the grapes used for the Grand Vin, which are from much older vines; the best tasting barrels of the younger grapes may be selected by the oenologist to blend into the Grand Vin to give a little punch to the final product, but that it is not always the case, and whatever is not used is sold under the second or third label or sometimes as bulk wine.
Another use for a second label is in poor vintages, when the quality of the wine after vinification, is not considered by the estate good enough to sell under the first label. In that case a winery might not release a first label vintage for that year, but will sell its entire production under the second or third label, rather than selling the wine in bulk at a much lower price to négociants who create their own proprietary wines under their own labels.
A third case is Italy, where a winery’s quality product does not conform with the local DOC or DOCG strict regulations as far as allowable grape varietals in a blend to get a DOC/G designation on the label. This, for example, is very prevalent with Italian Super Tuscan wines. Additionally, numerous Tuscan Montalcino producers use the designation “roso di Montalcino” as a second label. Again, good wines – sometimes almost superb-- but not as great as an actual top Brunello.
Recently, I had the second wine of a Super Tuscan producer Luce Tenuta della Vite, founded in Montalcino as a joint project of the Frascobaldi and Mondavi families. This second wine, a 2011 bottle of La Vite Lucente was a big and bold blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon. Smooth, ripe accents of dried plum and blackberries were discernable, along with pungent roasted espresso and a hint of green pepper. Excellent wine and well priced for the quality represented even though it felt considerably young and in need of a couple more years in cellar to mellow.
Because of global warming we’ve had more good vintages in the past 15 years than we used to see 20 to 30 years ago. That also means that today, a number of the second label wines might be as good tasting as the first labels were 20 or 30 years in the past. In the last 10 years, I’ve been drinking second label wines from Grand Cru estates as a more affordable way to have the product of an illustrious classified Bordeaux without paying the premium for the estate's first label.
Château Mouton Rothschild was one of the first to release a poor vintage under a second label.
Mouton Cadet was initially used as the second label, selling wine from difficult harvests considered unfit to be drunk as a château’s Grand vin; Mouton Cadet sold at very reduced prices. Eventually the buyer’s response was deemed successful and the sale of a second wine continued through the years. The estate has since expanded with more labels pushing Mouton Cadet further down its portfolio, with Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild currently the estate's second wine and Mouton Cadet developing into its own distinct brand with a different marketing strategy.
Château Margaux has Pavillon Rouge as a second wine and Château Lafite Rothschild has Carruades de Lafite-Rothschild (until the mid 1980s known as Moulin de Carruades). I have purchased both Pavillion Rouge and Carruades and I think they are excellent for the price though, nowadays they are unfortunately not as inexpensive as they used to be.
Third and Fourth Growth wineries, even Fifth Growth, have now second and, a number, third labels. Château Léoville-Las Cases is producing its Clos du Marquis as a second label and Château Lascombes its Chevalier de Lascombes. Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande is selling La Reserve de la Comtesse, Château Lagrange offers Les Fiefs de Lagrange, Château Giscours La Sirène de Giscours, and so on.
The majority of the second labels are pretty good wines, there are even a few almost great wines. As a winemaking friend said “It is 90% the quality at 45% to 60% the price”. Those interested in finding the second wines of any classified Bordeaux estate (1855 classed growths) can look up the “Bordeaux second wine” list in Wikipedia. Every second wine produced is listed there.
Many good restaurants in major cities offer second label wines in their wine lists. If a first label is selling for $600 to $4,500 per bottle, knowledgeable diners can have a second label for anywhere between $75 to perhaps up to $500 per bottle. And to be honest, very few people – except for some wine geeks like me -- would know the difference!
In New York City there is a retailer Millesima – owned by a Bordeaux négociant family – that carries numerous of the French second label bottles. Another excellent retailer that also carries numerous well chosen second labels is Acker, Merrall and Condit.
At a recent Millesima tasting we had 2008 Connétable, the second label of Château Talbot – one of the largest estates, classified as a Fourth Growth; 2008 Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine, a Fourth Groowth Margaux estate; 2002 La Fugue de Nénin, second label of Pomerol’s Château Nénin; La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet, a second wine made from specific plots at Château Sociando Mallet an unclassified estate with plots in Haut-Médoc. These were all excellent bottles and, with the exception of La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet that was a bit thin for an Haut-Médoc wine, as good as any top Bordeaux.
My strategy for purchasing Bordeaux wines while keeping costs at a logical level is as follows:
Exceptional vintages: I purchase second labels.
Good vintages: I purchase second labels and first labels of Médoc Cru Bourgeois, if they are logically priced.
Poor vintages: I purchase mostly first labels of Third or Fourth Growths, if they are logically priced.
Very poor vintages: I purchase Brunellos, Morelinos, Super Tuscans or some of the better wines of Catalonia.
Currently, Millesima offers 35 second labels through their web site: www.millesima-usa.com.
The store’s address is: 1355 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10021.
Acker, Merrall and Condit is located at 160 W 72nd St, New York, NY 10023.
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