The ‘second wines’ of Bordeaux Chateaux

As a critic specialising in the wines from Bordeaux, I confess I'm not much interested in the so-called 'second wines' of Bordeaux Châteaux. Many fail to live up to their billing: they're often too inconsistent even to dignify the name of their Appellations, frequently too dry to encourage their purchase, or to cellar, let alone to drink. These 'second wines' are a kind of subsidiary market destined for consumers who know little about wine but who are reassured by buying a wine associated with a known label. Merchants and producers have gauged their ignorance and use this to their benefit and they do nothing to clarify the situation. Even to the point where frequently the name chosen for their second wine, as in the design of its label, are so close to the first wine (le premier vin) that they represent a real source of confusion. Once, during a tasting at Pessac-Léognan, I found a particular wine rather feeble. I looked at the label and saw it was marked 'Olivier'. I was very disappointed until I realised that this was not Château Olivier, but simply the name of its second wine. Since then Château Olivier have changed its name ( it's now known as La Seigneurie d'Olivier du Château Olivier).

Nonetheless, second wines are necessary for the production of quality wines (by quality, I mean that the wines possess body, complexity and character on the palate). In Bordeaux, a Château has the right to sell all of its production under the name of its domain. However, all producers are aware of the unequal quality of the harvested crop even before their assemblage (blend). Some are better at it than others. But mixing the less good grapes with the good ones will always reduce the quality. In viticulture, 2% to 4% of the terrain is frequently re-planted in order to keep the vines in a good state. Less good lots at the harvest therefore come from younger vines where the grapes don't possess the density and concentration of the older vines; or where older plantations are planted on soils which are less good, or certain varieties didn't perform as well due to the prevailing climatic conditions during the year. What can one do with these wines? Create a second label: which will be distinguished from the first wine and which won't carry the name of the Château on the label. Also, every cru has the right to produce two wines with different names from the same domain. The 'second wine' therefore will always be known by the absence of the word Château in front: for example, Clos Du Marquis, second wine of Château Léoville Las Cases can never be called 'Château' Clos du Marquis.

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