When Seconds Come In First In The Wine World

Château Pichon-Longueville, Pauillac, France

 

When Seconds Come In First In The Wine World. In Clermont, New York, bordering the Hudson River, one hundred miles north of Manhattan, on this cold February night, tonight’s dinner, a hearty veal stew with noodles, will be accompanied by a bottle of Les Tourelles de Longueville, 2006.  This particular wine underscores once again why I love savoring a classic “second” wine from a great classified growth from the Medoc.  (As the image above says, “tourelles” means turrets, and there’s no question that this 19th century architectural fantasy says turrets like there’s no tomorrow!)

Les Tourelles is the “young” sibling of Château Pichon-Longueville, a second growth from Pauillac, according to the famous 1855 official Bordeaux wine classification.  The famous Pauillac appellation is located north of Bordeaux in southwest France, on the left bank of the wide Gironde estuary that empties into the Bay of Biscay.

Now that we know where this wine comes from, a second wine from a second growth!  What’s this mean?

Well, permit me to explain a bit of history, and persuade you why such a “second” wine is able to come in “first” on a night like this!

But first, a short word about the 1855 Bordeaux classification and why one needs to appreciate its lasting importance in the world of wine and how it illuminates the two “seconds.”

EXHIBITION ENVY

In the mid-19th century, in one of the world’s first global extravaganzas of its kind, of which the 2010 Shanghai Expo is only the latest example, the world’s most affluent tourists beat a path to the famous Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851.  Britain’s commercial elite and political ruling classes celebrated the Victorian  era’s might and marvels of the industrial revolution of the great European powers, all of which were invited to display their latest inventions – think steam turbines, Sheffield silver plate, and thousands of other innovations large and small.  As the building’s name implies, it was all clad in shimmering, glass-paneled splendor.  Another imperial power, France, and its Emperor, Napoleon III, came away with a very bad case of envy after visiting the exhibition.  Indeed, Napoleon’s handlebar-mustachioed nephew,  then presiding over building his Second Empire into global presence every bit as haughty and rapacious as any on earth, vowed to surpass the “roast-beefs” as the French have long called the British!

Interior view of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, London, United Kingdom –      circa 1851

Napoleon III wanted to outdo the British, pure and simple.  So even before the Crystal Palace world exhibition closed, the Emperor was already marshalling France’s industrial, commercial and agricultural barons to organize a Parisian Exposition Universelle to top Britain’s 1851 endeavor.

Palais de l’Industrie, Paris, France – circa 1855

Napoleon III

With his all-powerful city planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Napoleon III leveled vast tracts on the city’s right bank, constructing a vast Palais de l’Industrie to house French and foreign marvels and, by the by, dwarf  the Crystal Palace.

The Birth of the 1855 Classification

As part of this un-ashamed nationalistic exercise in one-upmanship, the Emperor asked the city fathers of Bordeaux, home to the world’s most prestigious wines. to submit an elite group of the region’s most heralded, most costly wines from its most well-known châteaux.  The resulting list, displayed at the 1855 exposition, changed wine history forever to this day.

To make a long story only a bit shorter, the resulting ranking of Bordeaux’s most esteemed wine châteaux were enshrined in what became known as the “1855 Classification,” which ranked the Médoc’s most worthy wines in five classes of quality, price and age-worthiness.  In French, Les Grands Crus Bordelais, the great growths of Bordeaux, refer specifically to the classification’s three-score number of properties that made the grade. While the classification process was plagued by political in-fighting, internecine rivalries, controversy, and vitriolic debates (those who weren’t include nursed “sour grapes”), the 1855 Classification has endured to this day:  Beginning with four First Growths (Premier Grand Crus) composed of châteaux Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margaux (Mouton was elevated to this select group in 1973); followed by Second Growths, including Château Pichon-Longueville; Third Growths; Fourth Growths; and, finally, Fifth Growths. In all, about 60 properties made the grade.

Second Wines of the Grands Crus of Bordeaux – Hidden Bargains

In nature’s cycle, the lifetime of a productive vine can exceed 100 years, though after about 50 years or so, its yield of fruit begins a gradual decline.  The peak productive period of a noble grape (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.) is estimated by viticulturalists as somewhere between 25-30 years old to about 50 years or so, depending on the climate, the grape variety, and a host of other factors from vineyard practices to irrigation or the lack of it.

Suffice to say, after a vine begins to bear fruit, after about four or five years, the harvested fruit from such vines differs markedly from much older vines.  And for a vine’s peak productivity, it is harvested fruit from these vines that go into a château’s “first” wine – the particular wine, vintage after vintage, that down through the centuries in Bordeaux has helped the property merit its classified growth status, be it from a first to a fifth growth classification.  In general, the older the vine, the better the wine; it’s a kind of short-hand way to describe and appreciate the beneficial effect of the relative age of the vine on its annual yield and quality of fruit.   The deeper the roots of a given vine penetrate, the more complex the fruit becomes year after year as the vine itself ages, according to vineyard experts.

A “second” wine. thus, comes from such younger wines, and while they may be planted, trained and grown right next to their “elders” — older vines — in a Second Growth like Château Pichon-Longueville, the  fruit from these relative youngsters are not considered quite good or complex enough to merit blending in the flagship bottling.  But as these younger vines benefit from the property’s terroir – that unique combination of climate and soil specific to each vineyard – a given château’s winemaker can set aside such younger fruit, vinify these assembled grapes separately, and release “a second wine” from the same property that releases the Grand Cru-classified wine.

That in essence is a second wine, and Tourelles is the second wine from the second growth, Château Pichon Longueville, which was ranked as such back in 1855.

The point is that such “second wines” are relative bargains compared to their pricey Grand Cru-ranked older siblings, and offer the wine lover a wonderful and relatively inexpensive way to taste some vaunted properties, not only across Bordeaux, but in many other famous, and even not so famous, wine regions.

For example, in Napa Valley, many of the famous wineries there offer “second” wines, inspired by the example of Bordeaux.  Likewise, even in Madiran, that little-known region in southwest France I wrote about in a recent post, vignerons like Alain Brumont, release year after year “second wines” just like his more renowned counterparts do in Bordeaux, Napa, and elsewhere.

Across Bordeaux, so-called second wines from great properties can retail here in the U.S. for as little as one-third to one-fifth the price of their classified older siblings.  In the case of Les Tourelles de Longueville, 2006, this wine will retail for well under $40-$50 a bottle depending on the vintage, while its 2nd Growth parent, Château Pichon-Longueville of the same vintage goes for at least $75-$80.

So shop around, ask your local fine wine merchant for some tips, and open a bottle and enjoy a delicious youngster from a property known for great breeding, heritage and quality. Santé….drink up!

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