Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Second Labels

So-called second-label bottlings of great wines are nothing new. And, in fact, they make perfect sense: They’re a great way for producers to make the most out of less-than-perfect fruit, or of their vines that are just too young to plumb the depths of profundity that their more mature ones do. From a consumer’s standpoint, they often afford the opportunity to experience the general character of a great wine without the necessity of spending all the money that the big brother requires, or giving the juice as long a repose in the cellar before it’s ready to be enjoyed.

What is new, however, is the price being asked for some of these second labels, most notably Carruades de Lafite. According to a recent news item on Decanter.com, “Carruades 2008 is still at around £1,000 [per case], but it is predicted to keep climbing closer to the other first growths once in bottle.

“Gary Boom, managing director of Bordeaux Index, told decanter.com, ‘Today a case of Carruades 2004 would set you back £1800, which is considerably more than the £1650 you would pay for a case of Mouton 2004.

“‘And this for a wine that cost around £280 at initial release. The 2008 may not climb as high as the firsts, but it is likely to go higher than Cos and the other Super Seconds.’”

So the question is this: Is the second wine of Chateau Lafite worth as much as, or more than, a bottle of top Second Growth like Cos d’Estournel, Leoville-Barton, or Pichon-Lalande or –Baron? Or, for that matter, a top Fifth Growth like Lynch-Bages?

It’s a tough call, and, like so much in the world of wine, a matter of personal taste. I’ve personally found that my preference is vintage-specific. For example, a recent bottle of 1996 Lynch-Bages was absolutely wonderful, but comparing it to the 2000 Carruades (opened at the same dinner) is unfair to both, since the latter was just starting to develop, even 9 years after the fruit was picked. It will be singing in another five to ten years. And give me a Leoville-Barton anytime and I’ll be a happy man.

So, really, it comes down to this: Drink what you love, try wines that you haven’t had before, and keep in mind that every vintage is different. And always look for opportunities to taste wines that are too young, at their peak, and slightly over the hill. It’s the best way to start building a sense of context for everything you taste, and you never know when you’ll find your next favorite bottling.


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