As things tighten financially the world over, the idea of drinking fine wine becomes not only less attainable, but somehow less relevant – there are just many more important things to worry about than whether you can afford to buy a bottle of first growth claret, or a top flight Napa. Restaurants in London are reporting drops in average spend on bottles by up to 40 or 50 percent, as people look for smarter choices. What that means for a region like Bordeaux is that people want to buy the less well known vintages, that can be significantly better value (think 2002 or 2004, still very good quality but far less expensive than 2005 or 2003) or second wines of the big names.
I am going to concentrate here on second wines – which mean you are buying something made by big name chateaux, with the same winemaking teams, and the same expertise, but that may come from younger vines, so have not had time to develop the same complexity as those destined for the first wine. In practice, this means vines that are under ten years of age, which produce less tannic fruit. This has the added benefit of making wines that are enjoyable to drink far earlier than the more renowned first wines.
So there’s no need to give up on wine as we watch our finances – as someone very wise said to me recently, ‘In good times, people like to drink wine. In bad times, they need to…’
La Parde de Haut Bailly, Pessac Leognan 2006 (approx £20)
La Parde de Haut Bailly was created in 1967, making it one of the earliest second wines to be made in Bordeaux. It is the epitome of elegant, restrained Bordeaux, and the second wine is no less lovely than the first. The estate was bought in 1998 and the chateau and winery have been completely restored. The day to day running of the estate is carried out by Veronique Sanders who is also president of the Association of Cru Classes of the Graves.
Les Hauts de Smith, Pessac Leognan 2004 (approx £20)
The second wine of the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, owned by Florence and Daniel Cathiard, this 2004 has seductive fruit and good depth of flavour. The oak is evident, but toasty and smoky enough to get away with it. I am a big fan of the white wine from this property also, one of the best of the new wave of Bordeaux whites that are gaining international attention. Both red and white look to favour these rich, concentrated flavours while losing none of their finesse.
La Reserve du Comtesse, Pauillac 2004 (approx £35)
This is the second wine of Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. The beautifully kitsch label sets a light tone for the whole experience – and the wine itself is medium-bodied with plenty of fresh red fruits. It has a smoky edge, with some savoury herbs that lift the whole thing up, and I can report that it works perfectly with the classic Bordelais entrecote et frites. Pichon Lalande’s new owner, the Roederer champagne firm, have taken over this property since the bottling of the 2004, but everything I have tasted recently suggest that this is still in safe hands.
Clos Canon, Saint Emilion 2006 (approx £22)
The name Clos Canon comes from the 18th century wall that encloses the vineyard of Château Canon. Purchased by Chanel in 1996, this second wine of Chateau Canon, a classified Saint Emilion, is run by John Kolasa, the wonderfully talented director of Rauzan Segla who has done so much to improve quality at both estates. And because its reputation has not yet quite caught up with the investments, you can still get this wine at a relatively good price. Plenty of rich summer fruits and ripe tannins – and a good quantity of cabernet franc making its subtly spicy presence felt.
La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet, Haut Medoc 2006 (approx £16)
This estate, owned by Jean Goutreau, is one of the few real cult wines of Bordeaux. Consistently good value, and well recognised for its exemplary quality, it remains just outside of the circuit of big names and consumers in the know are all the luckier for it. The second wine, like the first, puts pleasure first. Only 20 percent of this wine is put into new oak during the ageing process, with the rest remaining in stainless steel tanks – a process that ensures it is the fruit that takes centre stage, rather than the smokier, more intense flavours developed by a long oak ageing. The wine is then bottled without fining or filtration; a technique that keeps subtleties of flavours.
Petit Mouton, Pauillac 2006 (approx £50)
The idea of drinking a first growth may have to be put on hold for a while longer, but the second wines have always been, and still are, very good value comparatively speaking. As with Chateau Mouton Rothschild, this has one of the prettiest labels in the business. But what everyone always wants to know is whether it is worth paying the extra money for these wines – and I can tell you that the pedigree is apparent from the first sniff. It is rich in the deep dark fruits of cabernet sauvignon, but has a beautifully raspberry puree sweetness, and its flavours are still lingering in the mouth a good five minutes after the sip. If you look at it that way, you can be satisfied with less wine, and so see twice the savings…
Villa des Quatres Soeurs, Margaux 2006 (approx £20)
Luc Thienpont, brother of Jacques Thienpont of Le Pin, makes this small-production second wine from the insider’s Margaux, Clos des Quatres Vents. To be exact, it is not a true second wine, because it comes from an entirely separate plot of vines, but it is positioned as such. This is an enormously rich and flattering wine, and very well textured. Of the two vintages I tasted, the 2006 had the ripest, roundest fruit, and was utterly delicious. Only 7,000 bottles are made each year, and it sells out pretty much immediately, so if you want this wine, get in early.