Benjamin Lewin MW argues that the growing importance of second, third, and even fourth wines raises crucial questions about the fundamental character of Bordeaux—not least whether the concept of appellation and château typicity may be vanishing with the first growths into the stratosphere
Once upon a time, a château in Bordeaux produced a single wine from its terroir(s) each vintage. You could more or less see the quality of terroir and vintage directly in the wine. Then second wines started as a better way than simply selling off the wine in bulk for disposing of lots that weren’t completely successful. Not of great commercial importance at first, slowly they gathered more weight in the marketplace, until around a decade ago, when their volumes began to approach those of the grands vins. Once second wines became commercially significant, they, too, came under pressure to improve quality, so now there are third wines. The outside view of Bordeaux is very much focused on grands vins, emphasised by the annual en primeur circus. But the fact is that almost unseen changes in the commercial scene may be altering the fundamental character of Bordeaux. What does this mean? And how far will it go?
When they first started at the first growths in the 19th century, second wines were derived exclusively by declassifying lots from the grand vin. They somewhat fell out of favour during the first half of the 20th century — there were probably only half a dozen or so — when it was difficult enough to sell the grand vin, let alone produce a second wine. But a revival started in the 1960s. When Château Latour set out to produce Forts de Latour in 1966, the avowed aim was to produce a wine that would compete with the second growths. Château Lafite never had quite such a clear view of its Carruades, which was originally produced as a separate wine, became a second wine of Lafite in 1950, changed its name to Moulin de Carruades, and finally came back in 1985 as the second wine, Carruades de Lafite.
Second wines really took off after the 1982 vintage, and today there are more than 700. Most of the holdout châteaux that did not produce them at first have given in over the past decade, and now it’s pretty rare to find a top château without a second wine. In many — perhaps most — instances, the second wine is no longer a means to declassify from the grand vin but has become a brand in its own right. Some of its sources may come from declassification (especially from plots of young vines), but a significant part, often enough the majority, comes from vineyards that aren’t usually regarded as good enough to produce the grand vin.
Along with the view that the second wine has commercial interest in its own right, the proportion of second wine has increased substantially over the past decade. From a relatively small part of production, the second wine now comprises more than half of production at a significant number of châteaux. Given vintage variation, the trend is not entirely obvious, but the proportion of second wines may be increasing more slowly as it approaches a plateau. In the past three vintages, grands vins as a proportion of total production in the communes of the Médoc averaged 54 per cent in 2009, 52 per cent in 2010, and 48 per cent in 2011.
Does confining the grand vin to less than half of production move toward regarding it as a super-cuvée? If the second wines come to comprise most of production, will they, rather than the grands vins, establish the character of the appellation? I incline to the view that appellation character in the Médoc is expressed through its Cabernet Sauvignon — perhaps not so much because Cabernet Sauvignon is intrinsically more expressive of terroir than Merlot is, but because it is usually grown on the best, gravel-based terroirs. In the vast majority of cases, Merlot is confined to lesser, clay-based terroirs, which, I suspect, show less difference. So a move toward production in which Merlot predominates carries the implication that wines do not come from the best terroirs and will therefore inevitably be less clearly representative of their appellations.
At a minimum, wines made to a common mandate for early approachability are less likely to reflect differences of terroir. Let me put this another way: it’s difficult,but still possible, to identify the communal origins of grands vins in blind tastings; but I challenge anyone to do this so easily with second wines. If the grands vins become super-cuvées accessible only to a happy few, the concept of appellation typicity may vanish with them into the stratosphere.
Increasing production of second wine does not necessarily mean decreasing production of grand vin in absolute terms, since the total level of production has increased significantly. (Remember, châteaux can purchase additional vineyards — if they can get them — without changing their status in the classification.) In fact, you might regard the focus on second wines as providing a means for the châteaux to continue to produce their grand vin at more or less the same levels, while continuing to give an impression of scarcity even while expanding.
Despite these caveats, the quality of second wines has improved enormously over the past decade, largely because they, too, are now selected. “Second wines were a dustbin for a long time,” John Kolasa told me when I visited Château Rauzan-Ségla. Of course, there’s a corollary. In order to select lots for the second wine, there must be a third wine. Nowhere are the effects seen more clearly than at the first growths where, in 2009, grands vins and second wines averaged just over a third each, with the rest of the production going into a more generic bottling.
You might regard two wines — a grand vin and a second wine — as more or less directly related. But once you have three, you have to begin to think in terms of a brand line. Indeed, this is becoming common among the grand cru classés. “The grand cru classé is such a powerful marque that it can be used to develop a whole series,” Bruno Eynard told me when I visited Château Lagrange. It’s not obvious why it should stop with three levels of a hierarchy, and it could easily extend to a white and a rosé, for example.
Does this sit a little oddly with the insistence on protecting the concept of the “château” in Bordeaux? A second wine cannot be named Château Quelquechose; “château” is supposed to be protected, to mean original production. In the same way, producers are supposed not to sell the same wine under different names—though you have to wonder how effective these attempts are in protecting authenticity when there are (supposedly) around 10,000 “châteaux” in Bordeaux but only approximately 6,000 different addresses. Be that as it may, it’s obvious enough why the great châteaux might feel that their halos can extend to quite ordinary wines of the region — but don’t they thereby risk degrading the concept of the marque? If you really want to protect the concept of the château, shouldn’t the rules exclude using the name in production of communal or generic wine?
There was general disdain (mixed with some envy) for Mouton’s use of its name in the generic brand of Mouton Cadet. No other château has gone this far yet (a more cynical view might be to say that no other château has been so successful yet), and so far brand extensions have not gone beyond the commune or the Médoc. But the concept of the brand line now extends all the way from firsts growths to crus bourgeois.
The sense of hierarchy within a brand is quite conscious in all these cases, and the old distinctions between grand vin and second wine are less important than the position in the hierarchy. At the Borie properties, Ducru Beaucaillou (the grand vin), Croix de Beaucaillou (nominally the second wine of Ducru), and Lalande Borie (nominally a separate château) are regarded as a descending hierarchy, in which wine may be declassified from Ducru to Croix, and from Croix to Lalande. At Mouton Rothschild, the view is clear: “First, the cuvées are selected for Mouton, and then the Petit Mouton is made. Petit Mouton should be better than d’Armailhac,” technical director Eric Tourbier told me. Château Léoville-Las-Cases has just embraced the concept by turning its second wine, Clos de Marquis, into a representation of a separate vineyard (in fact, back to its roots in the early 20th century) and introducing a second wine (Le Petit Lion) that effectively occupies third place in the hierarchy. (Château Potensac then comes fourth.)
Recent developments toward brand extension are the antithesis of the movement in the 1980s toward garage wines on the Right Bank, where the distinguishing feature was the vanishingly small production. Given its smaller scale of production, the Right Bank was much slower to embrace second wines than the Left Bank. Today, more than half of all châteaux in the Médoc have second wines but only about a third of those in St-Emilion and Pomerol. There are few examples of the concept of a brand hierarchy on the Right Bank (though there are proprietors who own multiple châteaux). This could change, however, with criteria for the new classification in St-Emilion. This has that feature that is so beloved in France: a scale in which different attributes (such as market price or terroir) are given different weighted values. One effect of reducing the importance of terroir could be that it will be easier for châteaux to increase in size without jeopardising their classification (so avoiding past situations in which new vineyards have led to declassification). Indeed, there are those who think this is designed to encourage amalgamation on the Right Bank.
Perhaps the development of a more overt hierarchy as a sort of château production line should not be viewed as such a surprising development: Bordeaux is, after all, the place where the detailed classification of wine by price originated. The 1855 Classification is based on nothing more or less than pricing of châteaux in the prior decades; what could be more natural than to apply the same principle within, as well as between, châteaux? But is it yet another move away from the artisanal representation of terroir towards producing wines in a house style irrespective of place?