Wines of the Week

Second Labels -- And Who Makes Them

Second Labels – The Best-Kept Secret

We all want to enjoy great wine, but not all of us want to fork over a mortgage payment for a big Bordeaux or Super Tuscan.  Fortunately, there are less expensive alternatives.

I suppose there are people who drink major bottles as an everyday matter.  A thousand dollars to them is like ten dollars to the rest of us.  Just a matter of scale and proportion.  But those people don’t live at our house.

We divide our meager collection into maybe three parts…

·        Everyday drinking wines, like the corks we pop when we get home from work after a bad day…or any kind of day.  These are generally under $25-$20 a bottle.

·        Somewhat special wines that we’ll enjoy if some part of our lives has gone exceptionally well that day or week.  Something like we signed a new client.

·        The collectibles…wines we’ve purchased over the years that have increased insanely in value.  These we open only to celebrate anniversaries, births, or in the company of people who open similar bottles for us.

But it’s still possible to find and enjoy high quality wines made by globally famous wineries.  They’re called second and even third labels.

World class wineries such as ChateauMargaux or Screaming Eagle carefully sort their grapes by hand during harvest.  Since grapes don’t ripen evenly in bunches, this is a painstaking and laborious process.  The first quality grapes are selected for the major label. 

The remaining grapes are sorted again, and the best ones are retained and vinified for the second label, which is sold at a fraction of the price.  For example, a bottle of 2005 Chateau Margaux, a Grand Cru Bordeaux, costs around $700.  Their second label, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, is going for about $170.  Not cheap, but not completely outrageous.

Here’s a bit of help for when you’re ready to buy something really nice, but not insanely priced, for that birthday, anniversary, or holiday.

The most highly-prized and expensive Bordeaux wines have second labels, such as the above-mentioned Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de LaTour, and La Mission Haut Brion.  Other well-known Bordeaux producers offer second labels such as Echo de Lynch-Bages.  There are many others, as well.

In America, things are a bit different.  Wineries generally make several wines in many price categories.  There is Caymus, which is a reasonably priced California Cabernet at about $65.  Then there’s Caymus “Special Selection,” which will set you back over $250.

The Italians are especially good at this, so watch for these comparative bargains, and sample a few on those occasions that call for something a bit more special.

Until then, here’s just the kind of second label to look for:

Le Volte dell’Ornellaia Red Blend Tuscany 2015 ($30) – The top wine from Ornellaia sells for around $250 a bottle, so this is one of their value labels…and it is a value.  Dark ruby color in the glass with interesting aromas of milk chocolate and faint pine.  Dark red plum on the palate, along with wet stones and bright mixed fruit.  Very drinkable young, and great wine for the price.  WW 90

Also from Ornellaia, there’s Le Serre Nuove ($75)…a bit higher priced, but this wine has outscored even the top Bordeaux in competitive tastings for many years.  Medium ruby color with lots of red berries and fine, silky tannins.  WW 95

Lucente 2014 ($18)…is a great value.  This “super Tuscan” is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and the new oak aging gives it black cherry, vanilla, and coffee aromas and flavors.  WW 90

Ask the Wine Whisperer
A restaurant we went to had "Draft Wine" on the list.  I had never heard of it so I ordered a cab/syrah/merlot blend called Triple Threat.  The waiter didn’t know what draft was or the winery this came from.  It was surprisingly pleasant.  Have you heard of draft wines before?  Marna L., Seattle

Some very prestigious wineries are now putting their wine in kegs for use in restaurant by-the-glass service.  This preserves the wine much better than leaving opened half-bottles standing around, and does not affect quality.  I wouldn’t be hesitant to order a draft wine anywhere it’s offered.