Casey Affleck to Ben? Jim Belushi to John? Or God forbid, Frank Stallone to Rocky? Wine critics often regarded a château’s second label wine with a haughty sniff, referring to them as ‘little brother wines.’ Adding to the cynicism is the fact that over the years, prices have risen to the extent that a second wine from a premier estate often matches the sum once paid for the Grand Vin itself. But along with elevated tariff has come a rise in quality, and so much expertise is now poured into the production of second label wines that they may actually approach the class and character of what was once sold as the Grand Vin—and as such, the metaphor may be closer to Lionel Barrymore and his younger brother John.
Bordeaux is split in two by the Gironde Estuary, and the wines are often described by the side of the river where the châteaux are found. As the little brother is often overshadowed by the elder, so the Classified Growths of Bordeaux’s Left Bank have often basked in the brightest spotlights while those found along the Right Bank have hovered in the wings. Robert Parker Jr. may be credited (at least in part) for bringing some of these understudies center stage with critical high-fives and scores in the 90s. This is because Right Bank wines tend to be more in tune with his preferred style—plush, juicy and jammy with melt-away tannins, due in part to its soils being often better suited to soft, early-ripening Merlot rather than the austere, big-shouldered and acidic Cabernet Sauvignon that predominates in the Left Bank. An interesting feature of second labels from Left Bank estates is that they tend to mirror Right Bank virtues—often because the vignerons use a greater proportion of Merlot in the blend. In exceptional vintages (like 2018), when most vineyards reach their fully-ripened potential, second wines enjoy the best of both worlds; a prestigious name and a user-friendly style that may benefit from—but does not require—years in the cellar. Whereas the Grand Vins of these top estates may be prohibitively expensive, 2018 is an ideal vintage with which to explore their second labels and to see how tall the younger brother has grown since your last visit.
Philippe Sereys de Rothschild (owner of Château Mouton Rothschild) compares Vintage 2018 to the legendary ‘59s, which he claims are still near-perfect, with incredible depth and finesse. “It’s always interesting to try to describe a vintage with one word,” he says. “2009 is velvet; 2010 is square. And 2018? The word that comes to mind is ‘dense.’ It’s a vintage that you want to follow.”
According to Bordeaux wine merchant and vigneron François Thienpont: “In 2018, we saw a very specific weather pattern. The first half was very rainy, and then, after mid-July, it was dry. That means that we didn’t have any vines suffering hydric-stress. They weren’t affected by the drought and the vines were able to do the job for the grapes. It was easy. It was absolutely awesome!”
Located at the northern end of the Haut-Médoc in an undulating sea of quartz, pebbles, clay and limestone, the wines of Saint-Estèphe are known for both finesse and longevity. Accounting for nearly 8% of total Médoc production, the terroir of Saint-Estèphe is considered among the most favorable in Bordeaux—the limestone is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, while the heavier, moisture-retaining clay favors Merlot; the two varietals that make up the lion’s share of Bordeaux blends.
1- Château Calon-Ségur
‘Troisième Cru’ is a mouthful, and so is a glass of this wine from the northernmost classified growth in the Médoc. Calon-Ségur is recognizable by the heart on the label, a result of the original owner Marquis de Ségur (who also owned Châteaux Lafite and Latour) declaring, “My heart belongs to Calon.” Presumably, the current owners, the Gasquetons, feel the same way. Their vines are planted on deep gravel beds interspersed with sand and clay, and the Grand Vin has a higher-than-usual percent of Cabernet Franc, up to 15%.
Le Marquis de Calon-Ségur (2018 Saint-Estèphe) ($40)offers an entirely different interpretation of the terroir, being 75% Merlot. Under the careful eye of oenologist Éric Boissenot, Calon-Ségur’s second wine offers blackcurrant syrup, Damson plums, garrigue herbs and a beautiful mid-palate of licorice and dark chocolate.
2- Château Montrose
In English, it’s ‘Mount Pink’—a reference to the wild heather that blooms on the slopes. But red is the color for which the château is famous since its wines are a blend of four red grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Although (according to the 1855 Classification of the Médoc), Montrose is a Second Growth, or Deuxième Cru, it often rivals the First Growth class in quality and reputation. In the hands of the Charmoule family for 100 years, Montrose is known for its powerful, big bodied wines.
Montrose’s Second Label is La Dame de Montrose, the 2018 ($69), noteworthy for being more than fifty percent Merlot. This proves itself in the wine’s silky and seductive mantle, laced with mulberry, black currant and cassis notes; the tannins are gripping but pleasant and the richness of the finish is remarkable.
3- Château Cos d’Estournel
The name ‘d’Estournel’ has been attached to this estate since long before the Classification of 1855 listed it as a Second Growth, but the ‘Cos’ has been around even longer: it is an ancient Gascon word denoting a hill of pebbles. Composing 170 acres subdivided into 30 parcels, the château is nearly as famous for its oriental façade and a trio of golden sandstone pagodas than it is for its wines. Even d’Estournel’s Grand Vin tends to have a higher percentage of Merlot than do those of its next-door neighbor Château Lafite-Rothschild.
The blend, around 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Merlot (the remaining 2% is Cab Franc), is mirrored in its second Label, Pagodes de Cos. The 2018 ($68) is about as serious as a second wine gets, vibrant and approachable, with of baked black cherries, plum preserves and crème de cassis with hints of cigar box, tilled soil and wood smoke plus a touch of crushed rocks.
The most singularly revered appellation on earth; Pauillac is to wine what The Beatles are to pop music. Though fewer than ten square miles in total, three of the top five châteaux in the 1855 Médoc Classification are located here, and so varied is the topography that each estate is able to market the individual nature, in style and substance, of their wares. And it is this trio of skills—growing, producing and selling—that has made the region almost a cliché, synonymous with elite wine, where futures sell for exorbitant rates long before the wine is even in the bottle.
4- Château Pédesclaux
Pédesclaux is classified as a Fifth Growth, and the original accuracy of that designation may be confirmed by the fact that the Pédesclaux family was well-regarded as négociants at the time, and Edmond Pedesclaux was one of the brokers who actually helped determine the 1855 Classification. That said, there has not been a Pédesclaux at the helm since the nineteenth century, but the various owners since have slowly but steadily improved the plots they owned while purchasing additional vineyards. Part of the overall plan has involved planting more Cabernet Sauvignon (to which the terroir is particularly suited) and removing rows of Merlot.
As demonstrated by the Merlot-heavy Fleur de Pédesclaux (2018 Pauillac) ($26), it is to be hoped that they do not carry the Merlot decimation too far: The wine is nicely dense and sapid, showing velvety red currant and crushed strawberry along with earthy undertones of truffles and wild herbs.
5- Château Pichon Baron
‘When you’re number two, you try harder’ is an aphorism that may hold true in automobile rentals, but in the Médoc, the chances are slim that any Deuxième Cru will have its seat upgraded any time soon. But it is arguable to suggest that Pichon Baron is first among seconds, and it boasts a terroir essentially identical to Château Latour, immediately next door. Originally part of a larger estate (Château Pichon Longueville) the property was subdivided in 1850 between the owner’s children, among them, Baron Raoul de Pichon Longueville.
Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (2018 Pauillac) ($57) is Château Pichon Baron’s second label, 52% Cabernet Sauvignon and 48% Merlot. It is filled with the cedar-and-camphor tinged cassis that is trademark of Pauillac Cabernet, well-balanced by the plummy lushness of Merlot fruit, everything wrapped in a delightful cloak of fine-grained tannins and elegant oak.
6- Château Pichon Longueville – Comtesse de Lalande
Virginie, the Comtesse de Lalande, and her two sisters also received as inheritance a portion of the Château Pichon Longueville estate. Once considered unusual for using a much higher proportion of Merlot in the final blend, the estate has, over the years, complied to more ‘Pauillac’ standards; today, the Grand Vin may contain up to 75% Cabernet Sauvignon.
The château’s second label, Réserve de la Comtesse (2018 Pauillac) ($61), representing 41% of the total crop, is a return to the roots: 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. It opens slowly to offer glimpses of dusty soil, Sichuan pepper, garrigue and tobacco over a core of warm black cherries, cassis and blackberry pie plus a waft of toast and star anise.
Great things come in small packages, especially when big money is involved. The smallest of the major Médoc appellations (under four square miles), it also boasts (through a series of real estate deals between the large estates and the small ones) an astonishing pedigree: Fully 95% of the appellation sits on classified acreage. Key to the desirability of the wines produced here is the seamless fusion of concentration and elegance; the wines are of a style historically referred to as masculine, but more in the mode of a Knight Templar than a brawny warrior. This blend of finesse and fortitude comes in part from the preponderance of gravel in the best vineyards, allowing natural drainage in the wet years, radiating warmth in cool vintages, extending the growing season and allowing vine roots to extend deeply into the earth.
7- Château Ducru-Beaucaillou
There’s more to the name than a lovely rhyme; it encapsulates both the original owner and the timeless terroir. Bertrand Ducru purchased the estate in 1795, where the vineyards are peppered with quartz pebbles, forcing the vines to struggle for nutrients. This results in reduced yields and small, concentrated grapes that are packed with nuanced mineral notes. In French, ‘beaux cailloux’ means ‘beautiful pebbles’. The average age of Ducru vines is 35 years, but there is at least one parcel (Les Sadons) where the vines are over a century old.
The estate does not market La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou (2018 Saint Julien) ($65) as a ‘second wine’ because it comes from a different source: an inland vineyard on the south bank of the ‘La Mouline’ stream close to Château Talbot; it was previously sold as Château Terrey-Gros-Caillou. With two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon the wine is muscular yet fresh, displaying a full range of berry flavors steeped in spice (clove especially) and smoky charcoal.
In terms of size and renown, Margaux is a vastly important appellation, with 21 Cru Classé properties from the 1855 Bordeaux Classification within its borders and more acres under vine than any other Haut-Médoc AOP but Saint-Estèphe. As feminine as the name are the wines of Margaux, at least by traditional standards—they are famous for their perfumed fragrance and lilting, delicate expression of terroir; in cooler vintages, they may come across as lightweights compared to the powerhouses of Pauillac, but in fine vintages like 2018, they are incomparable in grace and depth.
8- Château d’Issan
The roots of Château d’Issan’ vines delve deeply into Margaux’s gravel, but not as deeply as the roots of the estate delve into history. One of the oldest producing châteaux in Bordeaux, wines from d’Issan vineyards were used to toast the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry the Second. Oddly perhaps, although Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant varietal today, when d’Issan was classified as a Third Growth in 1855, the wine was produced entirely from a grape that is now all but extinct in Bordeaux: Tarney Coulant.
Blason d’Issan (2018 Margaux) ($36) was introduced as a second label in 1995, and fulfills a textbook role within this category: Made from the estate’s youngest vines with equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it is fruity and accessible, offering a bouquet of blackberry and cranberry laced with undergrowth, mint, lavender and tobacco leading to full, fruity mid-palate and a mineral-driven finish.
As a stand-alone appellation, Pessac-Léognan is still in the bloom of youth; it was formally established in 1987 in recognition of the truly outstanding long-lived red and white wines of northern Graves. The appellation includes the only red-wine producer outside the Haut-Médoc to be classified in 1855, the Premier Cru Château Haut-Brion. Soils here, as in most of Graves, are filled with gravel and sand, a terroir that favors Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc over Merlot, which prefers clay.
9- Château Smith Haut Lafitte
Rated as a red wine ‘Grand Cru Classé’ in the 1959 Classification of Graves, the château sits on a low hill of pebbles and sand deposited by the Garonne River, offering grape vines not only superb drainage, but also reflected sunshine to lengthen the day’s ripening period. The estate is not to be confused with Château Lafite Rothschild (the Pauillac superstar) with which it has no connection, but both were named for their elevated physical status—‘la fite’ is an ancient dialectical word for hill.
Le Petit Haut Lafitte (2018 Pessac-Léognan Rouge) ($45) was introduced in 2010 from lots identified during the blending of the Grand Vin, and has an unusual distinction of being involved in the baking soda industry, as the carbon dioxide released in fermentation is recycled by the estate. The wine, with a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, is very friendly, with cassis and black currant in the foreground shored up by chocolate, menthol, smoke and nutty oak.
Châteaux’ Second Wines 2018 9-bottle pack contains one of each of the above listed wines at $495, tax is included.