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Wine shops in Paris and Bordeaux these days feature more “ second labels “ of classified Grand Vin chateaux than the original product. The reason for this marketing technique is quite simply the fact that grand vins de Bordeaux have become too expensive for the ordinary wine drinker. Specialized wine merchants recognize this and promote second labels in an attempt to make up for lost sales. Second label wines of classified Bordeaux chateau are those that fail to make the exacting and very high standards of such chateaux. This means grand vin chateaux may end up with a number of barrels that are too good to be sold to wine brokers for very low prices. Instead the regisseur of the chateau (the manager) along with the winemaker and sometimes with the owner blends these wines creating a very good product which is marketed as the second label i.e Chateau Lafite Rothschild calls its second label Carruades de Lafite, Chateau Latour Les Firtes de Latour, Haut Brion Bahans-Haut-Brion, Lynch-Bages Haut-Bages-Averous , La Grange Les Fiefs de La Grange, and Mouton Rotschild Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild.

In Bordeaux as in most other fine wine regions, each vintage wine is composed of lots from various blocks of the property. In Bordeaux ( Medoc in particular ) each chateau vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvingon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere sometimes even Malbec. Each variety is harvested and vinified separately. Once all components have been appropriately aged the winemaker starts tasting each barrel to determine blending proportions. It is during this elimination process that second label wines start emerging. They are fine, but fail to meet the standards of the chateau thus are relegated to the arbitrary classification. The production of second wines in Bordeaux can be traced back to the eight century but became commercially important in 1980’s when the ever-increasing competition forced chateau owners to select more rigorously to justify high prices. Some of the astonishingly high prices for top Bordeaux wines can be attributed to this rigorous selection.

Today, many chateau hold a green harvest at least once during the growing season, when up to 50 percent of the bunches are cut and discarded long before they ripen. This way, the crop is effectively reduced, but quality and flavour concentration increase. Vines now pour all their vigour into the remaining fruit. In September or October during the harvest (always by hand) up to 25 percent of the crop may be eliminated. It is the wine made from the grapes that survive this meticulous process the winemaker will evaluate prior to assemblage. Needless to say, after such a selective process, even the “ second label “ is very good and both are expensive. For thousands of smaller chateaux (Bordeaux has approximately 9,000) the assemblage can be painful. The owner must select well in order to create and appealing wine, but he cannot afford to be too discriminating or costs can become prohibitive.

For classified chateaux, cost concerns really are negligible, if at all. In the golden years of 1990’s Bordeaux chateau owners and their bankers grew more prosperous on several successive good harvests. Chateau winemakers were instructed to select only the very best. Some of the second label wines can be found in New York stores, or at Premier in Buffalo.

LCBO’s classics catalogue features from time to time a few well-selected second labels you can buy confidently.

Classics Catalogue rarely offers the wines of a poor vintage and/or Bordeaux property with a poor reputation,

When speaking of second labels, it is important to distinguish them from second growths.The famous 1855 Bordeaux classification singled out 60 chateaux and divided them into five categories called First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth growth. This classification still holds true to a large extent, although one change occurred in 1979. Chateau Mouton Rotschild was upgraded from the top of the second growth category to  first growth thus expanding the category from four to five. There are 16 second growth and the best of them are well worth their cost.

Buying second labels from less well-known chateaux makes little sense, but selecting second labels from first growth is always a wise decision.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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