Go for Seconds First

Paul Blow

Can’t afford 2005 Château Latour at around $1,200 a bottle? Try 2005 Les Forts de Latour at $180. Can’t afford Château Palmer at $400? Try Alter Ego for $60. These wines, known as second wines or second-label wines, are less expensive alternatives made by exclusive wineries under a different name. They’re often the best way to enjoy the style, expertise, and superior farming of the world’s great estates without having a Wall Street bonus to spend.

The other day at a big trade tasting held in a gymnasium-sized room filled with French people pouring wines to crowds of schmoozing retail wine salesmen in jeans, sommeliers in suits, and shabby media types with shirts untucked (like myself), I was given a good lesson in the value of seconds.

I was just moments too late to get the last drop of Rhône great Château Rayas’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With a slightly heavy heart, I put my glass out to taste the winery’s other offerings, the most famous of which is called Pignan. It comes from vines on a strip adjoining the Rayas vineyard, and like its neighbor is 100 percent Grenache. I took some of the 2006 vintage and was transported by the aromas of dried flowers, wild blackberries, fresh pepper, and grilled meat. It was slightly coarser than I’m used to tasting from Rayas, but completely alluring—and about half the price.

Pignan is not the only alternative to Rayas’s grand vin that the winery offers: There’s also Château de Fonsalette, from a different estate (and made with Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah), and La Pialade, probably the best Côtes du Rhône in the world. I would be just as happy drinking La Pialade as I would Rayas, and it costs a fraction of the price.

Second wines are often made from younger vines or declassified lots of estate fruit that the producer thinks are stylistically incompatible with its top wine. Sometimes, though, they come from an altogether different vineyard whose potential is spotted by a winemaker, but the fruit can’t go into the top wine because it’s not from the estate. Many winemakers love having a side project to play around with, not to mention a cheaper wine to offer in times like these. The second wines, which are usually meant to be consumed while young, can contribute cash flow to wineries in a business that isn’t known for quick returns.

American vintners are also rolling out alternative labels. A few years ago one of my favorite California wineries, Peay Vineyards, started a second label called Cep for various lots of Pinot that just didn’t fit in with its existing wine. In many years, I prefer Cep to more expensive California Pinots on the market. And Sonoma’s Laurel Glen, which makes one of the greatest but least heralded Cabernets in California, has a wonderful second wine called Counterpoint. While Laurel Glen usually sells for about $50, Counterpoint is about half that, and it’s one of the rare second-label wines that can age.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.