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What happens when a great Cab house produces second or third tiers?

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Benjamin Lewis writes, in his superb new book, Claret & Cabs, that the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and to some extent the Right Bank, is undergoing an identity crisis, as more and more Classified Growth chateaux bottle second wines.

It used to be that the handful of chateaux that made a second wine used grapes that were considered not good enough to go into the main wine. But that started to change in the 1990s and 2000s. “[S]econd wines have become profit centers in their own right, and are no longer simply a way to mop up lots that are not successful enough to include in the grand vin,” Lewin writes. “Often enough they have become a separate brand in all but name.”

The result are wines that “have improved significantly” and, with the great 2009 and 2010 vintages, “seemed to reflect their origins more clearly” than the grand wines. In fact, Lewin quotes Bruno Eynard, director of Chateau Lagrange, that “The second wine of a great year today is better than the grand vin of a minor year previously.” !!!

Lewin is not suggesting that proprietors are reducing the quality of the main wine, only that there is now competitive selection to make it into the second wine–with the corresponding result that many chateaux now have a third brand, as well, often bearing a simple communal AOC.

This ties into a phenomenon we’re also seeing here in California, in which top Cabernet wineries, usually in Napa Valley, produce a hierarchy of wines. As readers of my reviews probably know, it is far from certain that the most expensive wine (which may be a vineyard designate or barrel selection) is “better” than the second wine. I’d say that in about one-third of the cases, it is not. (Whether that makes the second wine a value, or the main wine a rip-off, is debatable.) But when the winery has a third tier that bears a simple Napa Valley appellation, the chances of it being pretty ordinary rise significantly. Not naming names– my reviews speak for themselves–but some Napa wineries are releasing these third-tier Cabernets that frankly aren’t worth the price, but merely trade on the winery’s name.

There was a time when vintners had some pride in what they turned out. If they had a lesser quality wine, they’d bulk it out on the market, or else bottle it under a different brand name and do everything in their power to hide the link to the parent winery. Inherent in this strategy, obviously, was the possibility of a reverse one: Some marketing whiz, at some point, would have said, “Wait a minute. Why are we hiding the connection? If we actively promote it, we could charge more money for the lesser wine.” (Mouton-Cadet, anyone?)

Someone in the room, I would think, would have objected that a low score on the lesser wine would taint the image of the main wine. But with the Recession and the current struggle for survival, even of some pretty famous wineries, the marketing message increasingly is triumphing over the moral message.

Last year, Joe Gallo asked me a question: Was Opus One good or bad for the Robert Mondavi brand? I’d never thought about it, so I asked him to give me a few seconds to think about it, and then I said, “Good, because it associated Mondavi with prestigious Bordeaux.”

“Wrong,” Joe Gallo admonished me. “It was bad, because Opus One took all the best fruit, and the Mondavi reserve suffered.”

He may or may not have been correct: certain critics in the 1990s faulted Mondavi Cabernets for lacking power, but that wasn’t necessarily because “Opus took all the best fruit.” Tim Mondavi repeatedly insisted he was not interested in making powerhouse wines, preferring a French style; the criticism that the wines were light (which I never bought into) was therefore a misunderstanding of the winemaker’s intention.

However, Joe Gallo’s argument does underscore the danger when a winery, with only limited access to superior fruit (and what winery has unlimited access to the best fruit?), tinkers around with second and third tiers. Usually, something gets hurt: either the top wine is lowered because quality grapes are diverted from it, or the second or third tier suffers because it has only inferior grapes. This is not to say that a winery cannot successfully produce separate tiers that are each quite good on their own: Freemark Abbey reliably does (with Sycamore, Bosché and the Napa Valley), and so does Stag’s Leap (Cask 23, Fay and Artemis). But I’m afraid they’re more the exceptions that the rule.

  1. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: I agree, but I think you could add Caymus to the list of good guys as well. I’m curious, how many different Cabs does Gallo make?

  2. Kurt: I don’t know how many Cabs E&J makes under its various brands. Scores, I would think.

  3. There are surely more, but four that come to mind that make sense are (second wine):
    1. Futo (OV) The 2010 is very close in quality
    2. Kapcsandy (Endre) There is a fiendish devotion to selection here
    3. Scarecrow (M.Etain) As the gap in price widens, Tin Man has more appeal
    4. Togni (Tanbark Hill) I recall one year Philip declassified one barrel and told me he was probably the only person who could tell the difference, so I bought it!

  4. george kaplan says:

    In the old days E&J would make one cab under several labels, including claret and maybe even Burgundy. What about producers with lots of vineyards and grapes who sell off good or excellent grapes to others at good prices, limit the size of their top-line-releases and maybe use lesser grapes for their basic blends? Is this common? There are a lot of $40 Napa blends these days from well-known sources that don’t taste like $40 to me. I agree with you about Artemis: to a slightly lesser extent I’d ad Grgich in that general range, but I like the fire and earth of Artemis better.

  5. george kaplan says:

    My experience is that the second wines of great Bordeaux houses excel mostly in hype and (over) price , with some exceptions: Bahans Haut Brion and Alter Ego de Palmer at least taste like their appellations. The seconds of Latour, Lafite, MArgaux and Mission HB, as well as Cos, Las Cazes and Montrose, are just ok, compared to traditional values like Potensac, Prieure lichine, Lacoste, Haut Batailley,the finally discovered Smith-Haut-Lafitte. I think the big houses are lightening up the style of the seconds to get early appeal and early maturity, and thus losing the mojo of their sites, or in some cases the seconds are from lesser sites owned by the Chateaux.

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