bordeaux: understanding second wines

Bordeaux, not unlike other Old World wine regions, is often perceived as a conservative place. However, what remains the world’s foremost wine region is in fact in constant change. The 2010 campaign confirmed the re-structuring of production in Bordeaux among the First Growths and their peers. 

One of the most notable features in the current state of affairs at La Place de Bordeaux is the rise and rise of the second wine, led by wines such as Carruades de Lafite (Chateau Lafite), Pavillon Rouge (Chateau Margaux) or Le Petit Mouton among others. Concurrently, it is possible to observe two further trends at La Place; an ever-decreasing volume of Grand Vin – Margaux 2010 is +/-38% of total production – and the introduction of a third wine at leading estates. This is not new per se, over the past 15 years chateaux have progressively cut back on the production of their top wine. In 1996, a strong vintage, production of the grand vin was at a mean of around 20,000 cases.  By 2005, one of the best vintages ever, it was just over half that number.

The Medoc is unusual among the world’s fine wine regions in that its lead producers are not small. Indeed, a typical chateau has between 15,000 and 20,000 cases to sell in a given vintage. If one wanted to, it is perfectly possible to buy 10 cases of the first growths of practically any of vintages of the past 20 years. Can such wines, then, be considered as fine and rare?  The chateaux have recognized that if they are indeed to command the heady prices seen in recent years, they will have to produce an ever more rarified product. However, less production will itself fuel higher prices.

Terroir

There is, nonetheless, a wider concern that chateaux may yet have to adequately address: the distancing of the already loose definition of terroir and chateaux identity vs. the 1855 Classification. Terroir; the French term, now universal, to describe the interplay of factors, natural and human, considered to define the identity, quality and, through legal definition, protect the prices of a given wine region and its wines. Terroir is the central concept for the French winegrower, as indeed it is to much the same extent across the Old World. Yet, in France’s (and the world’s) foremost fine wine region, its top chateaux are classified by way of the famous 1855 Classification. A top-down order based on the average market price a chateau’s wines fetched that same year. The classification is institutionalised and widely seen as outdated, unassailable as well as an excellent tool by which to take a wine to markets old and new, as above all else, in the classification the brand is primal. 

To understand Bordeaux it is important to understand the lack of direct connection between classification and terroir – parcels of land may be bought and sold, vineyards may expand or decrease but the classification holds. The challenge the Bordelaise face, then, is this: can an estate whose classification is based on its grand vin maintain its identity and that of the wine itself, were that wine to represent less than 40% of estate production?  Or, may such a wine come to be seen as some kind of super cuvee; a blend of high quality selected vats.

Commercialisation and production

This re-definition of the grand vin is part of a wider re-structuring of production underpinned by a clear commercial rational. Foremost, no doubt, is the continued quest for quality, something for which today there is no margin for error, at all. The public expects perfection. Secondly, to maximize prices of both the grand vin itself as well as the second wine. To support which, it has been necessary to increase the focus on the second wines, by a certain reigning in of production alongside a focus on quality that in times gone by was reserved for the grand vin. The result, the chateaux hope, is a high quality wine that is a fine wine brand in its own right – with a price tag to match – at significant production levels.

Finally, we have the introduction or re-orientation of a third wine, either bottled under the chateau’s generic appellation or simply produced as base wine to be sold off in bulk to local negociants (merchants).  Its role, of course, is to soak up production of all remaining wine, typically from younger vines and some lesser vineyard plots, but also from that deemed to not be of sufficient quality to comprise either the grand vin or second wine.

Far from being new, such an approach has always been a feature of Bordeaux and a function of the market of the day. In times of prosperity, the Medoc chateaux made the grand vin the centre piece of production, only to favour the second and other wines when it was difficult to sell. Similarly, the wine trade across the world has always adhered to the strategy of lead wines and volume wines. The small farmer-grower and larger wineries have always produced a higher priced wine upon which they hope to make their name and volume wines that support the overall enterprise. 

It is an interesting time for the négoce. Will prices consolidate at more or less the new price ceiling established in recent vintages, or might the market see a significant correction, thus threatening the whole Classed Growth game plan? Moreover, will this re-definition of production, ever more distanced from both terroir and classification, based around a rarified grand vin resonate with and find success in the market in the way it has done historically?

What is clear is that the ever-changing Place de Bordeaux, so often accused of short-termism, is in fact – through long often bitter experience – master of adaptation and response to the economic and market conditions of the day.

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