Cambridge Wine Merchants at the weekend to source some wines for a Cambridge Food and Wine Society event and whilst there, noticed a magnum of Reserve de la Comtesse 1994 on display.
Now, I can't remember how I happen to know this bit of wine trivia, but Reserve de la Comtesse is the second wine of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande - one of fifteen Deuxièmes Crus (Second Growths) in the original Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. I'm not sure I could name any others, but this essentially means that the wine is not quite good enough to go into a wine costing, possibly, hundreds of pounds per bottle, but is basically from the same area and made with the same skill and care - in the same way that a Skoda shares its underpinnings, chassis, engine and pretty much everything except the final layer of trim with a (much more expensive) Audi.
Whilst mainly associated with Bordeaux, second wines are nothing new, nor are they limited to classed growths; Waitrose, for example, sells a Cotes de Castillon called Seigneurs d'Aiguilhe from for under a tenner as the second wine of Château d'Aiguilhe. For bargain hunters, second wines are great news - you get a good sense of what the main wine is like without anything like the expense, so at this point I popped back home for some quick Internet research which revealed the price was very reasonable and the year was a good albeit not a truly great one.
Second wines also have an advantage for the producer, as they allow, for example, wine from younger vines or in off years to be sold under a different label, thus maintaining the prestige of the first wine.
In general, second wines are said to be slightly faster-maturing than the main wine, but as top Bordeaux may be only just ready to drink at about 10 years, peaking after a few more years, and as magnums age more slowly than single bottles (twice the amount of wine but the same amount of air in the bottle), my main concern was only around how it had been stored for the last 16 years rather than whether was past its best. A quick chat with the branch manager revealed it had been in the shop for a couple of months, but had been stored sensibly and prior to that, had been with a wine wholesaler. He also helpfully added that if there was a fault, I could return it for a refund - which was very reassuring.
My last magnum of "quality" Bordeaux was at Christmas when I opened a Troplong Mondot which an appreciative boss had given me a while back - I was not sure at the time whether I would be able to perceive the difference between that and the more everyday Bordeaux I usually pick up in a French supermarket, but there was definitely something superior about the depth and texture of the wine which was hard to define, but felt perhaps a little like seeing the original of a great painting compared to just a print in an art book.
As to price, this magnum set me back around as much as an entire Laithwaites "mystery case", so it's definitely a "special occasion" wine and all that remains now is to find a suitable occasion.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande's website includes a whole section on its second wine and here's what it has to say:
In the Bordeaux region the classified crus have mixed soils, but large enough tracts of land to make very rigorous selections. It is only the quest for excellence during the XVIIIth century that led the owners to elaborate several wines of different quality. Severe selecting is the guarantee of quality of a great wine, but also of a second wine.
Today, the second wines represent between 20 and 50 % of the total production of the Chateau. From the same soil, the second wine benefits from the same technology as the great wine, and also its reputation. They are generally excellent wines, though less robust and long lasting than their elders.
The archives kept at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande mention the existence of a second wine as early as the XIXth century:
27 April 1890, shipping of four bottles of the vintage 1874 second wine to the Moscow exhibition.
In addition, the accounts book for the year 1874, that details the production of the year confirms that the second wine was rigorously selected.
The second wine of Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, The Réserve de la Comtesse, was created and sold for the first time in 1973.
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande - http://www.pichon-lalande.com/index-uk.htm