For those in the know, the second wines of top Bordeaux estates have long been considered some of the best value drinking in town.
Rather than a ‘dustbin’ for everything that isn’t good enough to make the grade of the first wine, these wines carry the château name, are part of the brand, and are treated as such. Not only do they profit from the know-how of the same wine-making team but they may be made from parcels and lots kept specifically for these wines, perhaps from younger vines or different terroir, often giving a lighter expression, benefiting from a lighter oak treatment giving easier and earlier drinking wines – more approachable both in style and in price! Their quality continues to grow as many properties are introducing third wines, Le Pauillac de Chateau Latour since 1990, and the Petit Lion de Marquis de Las Cases since 2007, to name but a couple.
Whilst these wines are now on most wine enthusiasts’ radar, it’s worth taking a peek behind these chateau labels, as many of the top properties have other strings to their bows.
In the official figures for 2015, released by the CIVB earliest this year, the number of growers, all Gironde wines combined, was 6,822 (fallen by half in the last 20 years). The total number of wine properties is probably nearer 10 000 however as many of the ‘Growers’ are the fortunate owners of several properties.
Although the other wineries owned by top growths may not be classified, these lesser-known properties will also benefit from the know-how of the top winery teams, the deep(er) pockets of their owners and the marketing push as they are presented alongside their big brothers at tastings. Other advantages include access to newer barrels with a guaranteed provenance, as barrel turnover will be faster in top growths that use a higher percentage of new oak.
I was reminded of this when I visited Chateau Le Crock recently. Chateau Le Crock is a magnificent chateau perched high on a gravel outcrop of Saint Estèphe, in between prestigious neighbours Chateau Montrose and Cos d’Estournel. It is a Cru Bourgeois, part of the new classification as well as the original one. The owners, the Cuvelier family, are also owners of Chateau Leoville Poyferre, second growth of Saint Julien, as well as Chateau Moulin Riche. Moulin Riche used to be considered a second wine of the property but now is a stand-alone label, the second wine is Le Pavillon de Leoville Poyferre.
The neighbouring Leovilles also have other properties; Chateau Leoville Barton is also home to Chateau Langoa Barton, (although originally it was the other way round, as the cellars of Langoa welcomed the wines of Leoville back in the 1800s). The Barton family have more recently invested in Moulis, at Chateau Mauvesin Barton, as I mentioned in a previous post. Chateau Leoville Las Cases also has hidden treasures, the Delon family own Chateau Potensac in the north of the Medoc appellation.
This is not a uniquely Saint Julien affair, just next door in Pauillac several top properties have hidden jewels; Chateau Pichon Baron, a second growth of Pauillac, owns Chateau Pibran a neighbouring Pauillac property and, across the road, when Roederer purchased Pichon Comtesse they also bought the lovely Chateau de Pez in Saint Estephe. The Cazes family, as well as owning Lynch Bages, own Chateau les Ormes de Pez in Saint Estephe and the lovely and very affordable Château Villa Bel Air further afield in Graves.
Another Médoc family the Quiés are spread over several left bank appellations. Famous for their 2nd growth in Margaux Rauzan Gassies, they own 5th growth Croizet Bages in Pauillac and Bel Orme in Haut Medoc, another Cru Bourgeois.
It’s not a uniquely left bank phenomenon either. Some brave souls dared to cross over to the dark side. Leoville Las Cazes owns Chateau Nenin in Pomerol, Château Lafite has Chateau L’Evangile in Pomerol and Chateau Rieussec in Sauternes as do Pichon Baron owners Axa Millesimes again with properties in both Sauternes: Chateau Suduiraut and in Pomerol: Chateau Petit Villages.
Right bank properties also have jokers up their sleeves, investing in lesser-known estates and surrounding appellations such as the Saint Emilion Satellites or the Côtes appellations.
The von Nieppergs, owners of Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere in Saint Emilion, also own Clos de l’Oratoire and Chateau Peyraud in the same appellation and have invested both in the Côtes de Castillon buying Chateau d’Aiguilhe where a modern wine cellar makes this one of the leading lights of the appellation. Angelus owners, the de Bouards, have used their Lalande de Pomerol property, La Fleur de Bouard as a testing ground for a lot of experimental wine making that they have since harnessed at Angelus, so the advantages work both ways. They have more freedom to experiment in smaller properties rather than in their flagship vineyards where is it perhaps more risky to test out new techniques.
Francois Despagne, owner wine-maker of the classified growth Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne in Saint Emilion is also using his expertise making Chateau le Chemin in Pomerol and Chateau Ampelia in the Côtes de Castillon. Look out for Chateau la Maison Blanche, owned and made by his brother Nicolas just across the boundary of Saint Emilion in Montagne Saint Emilion; some of the purest expression of terroir in organic and biodynamic production.
These are just a few of many examples well worth looking out for, other owners that are spread across several appellations include the Cathiards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte who have recently invested in Pomerol and Sauternes and Bernard Magrez who has a finger in many Bordeaux appellations.
I’ll stop now before this sounds too much like a shopping list, as these are just a few of many examples well worth looking out for and I haven’t even mentioned investments made in other French wine regions or abroad – another blog post perhaps?
These investments in lesser known estates and appellations by leading wineries brings not just money but know-how and experience, raising the bar of excellence and increasing their reach to the wine enthusiast. If you thought second wines were worth looking for, take it to the next level; it’s worth getting off the beaten track a little and looking behind those top labels to see what other treasures they are hiding.