Second Labels

Finding Value in the Classic Wine Regions of the World For those who love wines from the great classic regions of the world – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and the Rhône – it has been hard to watch as these region’s top wines have escalated in price. Premier Grand Cru Classé Mouton Rothschild’s 2000 vintage was […]

Finding Value in the Classic Wine Regions of the World

For those who love wines from the great classic regions of the world – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and the Rhône – it has been hard to watch as these region’s top wines have escalated in price. Premier Grand Cru Classé Mouton Rothschild’s 2000 vintage was released at about $275 per bottle in 2001, and now fetches about $1,300 per bottle. The newest release, the 2016 vintage, is around $550 per bottle and won’t even be bottled for a year! Many others have taken even more dramatic price increases, especially some of the smaller right bank properties, making many of the region’s top wines out of reach for the average consumer.
Bordeaux is not the only place where rampant price increases have driven many buyers out of the market. World famous Super-Tuscan Sassicaia 2007 cost about $83 on release, the current vintages are about $200. Burgundy’s top estates may have seen the most extreme increases, fueled by world wide collector demand and tiny productions. Armand Rousseau’s highly sought after 1999 Gevrey Chambertin, 1er Cru, Clos St. Jacques, was a mere $85 per bottle on release. Current vintages top $700 per bottle if you can find it. Domaine de La Romnée Conti? Forget about it! A single bottle can set you back well over $10,000.
The affordable answer lies in buying second labels from great producers. In Bordeaux, the goal of the Châteaux is to make the very best wine they can for the “Grand Vin”, the top wine of the estate. This is done by carefully selecting the best lots and barrels and blending them to become the final wine. Wines that don’t make the cut – not always inferior but sometimes they just don’t suit the blend or style the winemaker is seeking are often put into a second label. Some have third labels, but any wine they don’t feel is up to the standards of the winery is sold off in bulk.
Second labels are produced from the same estate grapes and the same team used for the top wines. As such, they often reflect much of the same style as the top wines, but they are typically about half as much money. In addition, they are often vinified in a way that they’ll be more accessible when they are young, eliminating the need for a decade or more of cellaring before they are ready to drink. True, some second wines now cost more than the firsts did not that many years ago – but if you stay away from the Premier Grand Cru Classés and focus on 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Growths, you will find dozens of bargains.
La Croix de Ducru Beaucaillou, Echo de Lynch Bages, and Les Griffons de Pichon Baron are all great examples that sell for under $50.
In the case of Burgundy, a step down to Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc from the pricier Village, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru designations will give you plenty of Burgundian character for under $30, especially from the ripe and lush 2015 vintage. The only issue there is frost, freeze, and hail that wreaked havoc with yields, resulting in shortages even of the lower price wines. Burgundy is a little trickier than Bordeaux – the best strategy is to seek a merchant that specializes and ask advice. They are not technically second labels, but they accomplish much of the same goals: earlier drinking, classically styled wines at a fraction of the price.
In Brunello, opting for a Rosso di Montalcino will get you plenty of Brunello character at a half or less than the real deal. Whereas Brunello must age for five years before release, Rosso’s only need one. Like their Burgundian and Bordelaise counterparts, these wines are vinified to be much more accessible when young, alleviating the need for long cellaring. Look for Rosso’s from top producers such as Pertimali, Siro Pacenti and more for some of the best values in Italy.
In the Rhône, look for Côtes du Rhône Villages instead of Cháteauneuf du Pape, Crozes Hermitage or Saint Joseph instead of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, and you will find value and quality and incredible prices. A string of great vintages has generated a wealth of superb, affordable wines both in the northern and southern Rhône – don’t miss out!

Chris Cree MW is one of only 42 American Masters of Wine in the country. He is currently Director of Wine Education and Retail Operations at The Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster NJ. He can be reached at chriscreemw@pluckywineshop.com

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