Enjoying Bordeaux: Second Label Wines

Experiencing the beauty of Bordeaux wine can be a bit like trying to view the Mona Lisa on a busy day at the Louvre: you know it’s there, but it’s difficult to get close enough to really enjoy it.

That’s largely because the capital spend for great Bordeaux can be tremendously expensive. In my case, economically tragic, actually 😉

I had the recent good fortune to learn something new about enjoying great Bordeaux from top estates:

It doesn’t have to be that way.

bordeaux-assortedI attended a presentation in New York City where Hortense Bernard, General Manager at fine wine purveyor Millesima USA, demonstrated that by selecting second label wines from top estates, wine lovers can indeed enjoy great Bordeaux at a fraction of the cost of first growth wines. According to Bernard, “Second labels have existed since the 18th century and were once wines that the estates kept for family. Nearly all of Classified Bordeaux estates offer second labels, and today we see these ‘second wines’ garnering more and more market share, as customers discover the great value they offer.”

Not to feel anxious about the ‘second label’ terminology: it is not a definition of lesser quality. In fact, French law requires that second label wines be made from grapes sourced from the same estate as their corresponding first label wine, albeit sometimes from younger vines. Furthermore, second labels typically share the same winemaker, terroir, grape and vinification as their first growth counterparts. And you can look to enjoy second label wines in the short term, say, between six and eight years after release.

bordeaux-talbotIn their presentation handout, Millesima, a company offering a comprehensive selection of fine and rare wines via its e-commerce site and retail shop New York City, was good enough to provide additional pointers for enjoying Bordeaux, tips that every wine lover should know:

Seek Out Smaller Vintages
Instead of focusing on vintages that attract investment and collector attention, try instead vintages of lesser renown that are drinking well. For example, Hortense recommends the 2002 vintage that released to less applause but which is, in fact, drinking quite well at the moment.

Become Familiar with Fifth Growths
While investors and collectors routinely focus on the upper end of the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855 which ranks wines from First to Fifth Growths, Bernard suggests exploring the Fifth Growths, noting that, “Many of these wines are affordable and real treasures.”

Discover the Cru Bourgeois
The Cru Bourgeois classification represents a list of wines hailing from the Médoc, excellent quality wines that just happen to not be included in the 1855 classification. Says Hortense, “Something we love about the Cru Bourgeois is that you can experience a renowned vintage from a famous appellation and a famous proprietor, very inexpensively.”

Consider Lesser-Known Appellations
Seek out outstanding estates in lesser-known appellations – Bernard suggests, for example, Moulis – or around the fringes of famous appellations such as Saint-Emilion, noting there are indeed treasures to be found.

The evening’s wines successfully echoed the presentation theme and included:

Domaine de Chevalier, L’Espirit de Chavelier Blanc 2011
From Pessac-Léognan, the evening’s solo white showed good dimension, an especially pleasant weight on the palate, fruity, with a long honeysuckle finish.

Connétable de Talbot 2008
Well-knit wine with ripe fruit, attention-getting structure, long in the mouth, from Fourth Growth estate was a bit tight early in the evening but opening up when re-tasted as the evening wore on.

Château Sociando Mallet, La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet 2008
Sensational fruit, soft in the mouth, reverberating finish. Gorgeous, drinking insanely well.

Château Prieuré-Lichine, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine 2008
Silky, nicely balanced wine with firm tannic structure, will be even better with just a bit more patient wait time.

I must mention that this tasting / presentation was an educational wine event in truest spirit, one that delivered high-context, incredibly relevant content in an intimate setting. I hope more trade event presentations take note of the benchmark.

Special thanks to the knowledgeable and responsive Denise Barker, Assistant Wine Buyer for Millesima USA.

Event coordinated by Vigneto Communications.

Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione: Toward Understanding and Appreciation

The steps leading up to the Fifth Avenue entrance of the New York City Public Library have a certain grandeur all their own. A climb, one might imagine, toward higher education, learning, knowledge.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-20151Entering the library, my hopes are high that what I learn at today’s Chianti Classico / Gran Selezione 2015 presentation will replace skepticism with a better understanding and appreciation of the newly-minted Gran Selezione disciplinare belonging to Chianti Classico, one of Italy’s most iconic wine appellations.

Today’s presentation quickly sets about to introduce the Gran Selezione classification (wines launched in early 2014) as Chianti Classico’s “best of the best”. I do understand the intended sentiment, really, but the choice of words highlights one of the main market challenges facing Gran Selezione: does the category of Gran Selezione really communicate the importance suggested by its title?

In getting to know Gran Selezione, a savvy consumer or wine industry professional might look to sort things a bit by referring to the requirements for classification as a Gran Selezione wine, which include:

• Produced from 100% of grapes grown by the winery bottling the wine. This could be taken to mean sourced from a single vineyard or selection of vineyards (To be clear, a producer owning non-contiguous vineyards within the Chianti Classico territory is, I believe, permitted to use grapes from any or all of his in-zone owned properties.)
• Aged 30 months including 3 months bottle aging, non-specific guidance
• Minimum 80% Sangiovese (same as Chianti Classico Riserva)
• Can include other permitted varietals, i.e., Canaiolo, Merlot, Syrah, etc.
• Can be released as 100% Sangiovese

Unfortunately, between Gran Selezione requirements and certain requirements for other Chianti Classico wines – the Riserva wines come to mind – there exists a degree of overlap which rather obscures a clear differentiation for Gran Selezione, often creating confusion and questions.

Speaking of questions, here are some of the questions I heard walking around the tasting floor and during the course of the event:

Is it the intention to produce Gran Selezione wines every vintage or only in the best vintages?

What are the implications of re-structured ownership / acquisitions upon Gran Selezione quality?

Is Gran Selezione a marketing tool to promote and sell the Chianti Classico category?

What varietals really create Gran Selezione, that is to say, what varietal/s are driving the “quality upgrade” to Gran Selezione?

Which are the “new” wines created under Gran Selezione versus the existing wines that have been repurposed into the new Gran Selezione category?

Does Gran Selezione simply perpetuate the culture of Super Tuscans, giving them a different label?

Confusion (in the market) around Gran Selezione does exist and largely derives out of consumers trying to identify terroir-specific value. It is vital that market messaging and communication from Consorzio Chianti Classico address that gap.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-2015-bibbianoOn the producer side, many producers are doing a good (read: serious, sincere) job to interpret to the Gran Selezione denomination, a classification that, at some level, is still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up.

Now, 16 months after the inception of Gran Selezione, with 89 labels of Gran Selezione being produced, hailing from all communes of Chianti Classico, the central question seems to be whether the classification will be understood in the US market, one that represents 31% of the Chianti Classico market.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-2015-castello-la-lecciaWhile still skeptical of its current configuration, I am as well optimistic about the future of Gran Selezione.

American writer/poet Nancy Willard said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” In the case of Gran Selezione, in this moment in time, I couldn’t agree more. Here are two improvement oriented questions that may help point the way for consumers to more easily understand and appreciate Gran Selezione:

Would the decision to produce Gran Selezione wines only from single vineyard locations help consumers better identify terroir-specific value? (True, moving in this direction will require much consensus-building. But, hey, we are talking about a “grand selection”, “best of the best”, classification, right?)

Would the decision to produce Gran Selezione from 100% Sangiovese better differentiate the wines, reduce variation within the category, reduce confusion?

You can find my un-rehearsed comments from the Chianti Classico / Gran Selezione 2015 event in the IEEM video interview embedded just below: