2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.