Budding oenophiles on a budget are frequently frustrated by their inability to experience the Big Label bottles. Never fear: It's common practice in France for chateaux and estates, whose output is strictly limited by law, to use any excess production - even from first-growth vineyards - in less prestigious bottlings. Chateau Talbot's designated second label is Connetable Talbot, Cheval Blanc's is Le Petit Cheval, and Cos d' Estournel's is Marbuzet. Yes, these are likely to approach $30, but imagine the alternative.
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Great wines for under $15
Reviews and recommendations from Ron Bechtol
Without specific regulations, the same sleight of hand is practiced in Italy, where Antinori may determine that the grapes that normally would have gone into the production of a Super-Tuscan blend weren't quite up to quality in a given year. Solution? Use them in the entry-level Santa Christina, thus giving a dependable wine a grape lift in certain vintages.
In the U.S., the practice of "second labels" is more widespread among prestigious wineries than many realize, in part because the original vintner frequently isn't listed on the label or is mentioned only in fine print. Here, it's not a question of production limits, but often a way of either playing to a larger market or creating a vehicle for working with difficult grapes. The latter challenge encouraged winemaker Michael Richmond of Bouchaine Vineyards in California's Carneros region to produce the Buchli Station label. Bouchaine's showcase wines are estate-produced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but each is also produced in the $12-15 Buchli Station line, primarily found in restuarants.
Richmond, who co-founded Acacia Winery in 1979, is so confident of his full-price chardonnays that he doesn't feel philosophically obliged to produce them in second-label form, though he does so to complete the line. Pinot, on the other hand, "is a paragon of uncertainty," and the Buchli Station line allows him much-needed flexibility. A tasting of the pinot at Boudro's - taken with achiote-inflected pork and glazed ribs with coffee and hoisin sauce - suggested that there is nothing to be ashamed of. "The whole package is there - just not as heightened" says Richmond, and he's right. The same tasting also revealed that when we grow up and can afford wines in the $25-30 range, both the Estate and Carneros pinots and chardonnays will be worth seeking out.
As I write this, I'm sampling another second label, the Glass Mountain 2001 California Cabernet Sauvignon by Markham, a vineyard known for its merlots. Although not a profound wine, it nevetheless has good fruit, a pleasant nose of cherry and berry, and was only $7.29 at Central Market. Fess Parker, an increasingly well-regarded producer, also makes Parker Station, and its pinot noir should retail around $13. My current fave is the HRM Rex Goliath Giant 47 Pound Rooster 2003 Central Coast Pinot Noir from Hahn Estates (Hahn means hen, by the way ... get it?). Packed with brash pinot fruit and fairly crowing to be drunk with barbecue, burgers, and even fancier fare such as duck (though not chicken), this beauty can be found for $7.99 at Saglimbeni Fine Wine. Buy cases because they're further discounted - and no, I do not get a cut. •