Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
What is a “second wine”?
—Eric, Roseville, Calif.
Good question—and a timely one, since Wine Spectator's 2022 Wine of the Year is considered a “second wine.”
A second wine, or second label (not to be confused with a second-growth), is just what it sounds like: not the signature bottling of a winery, but a second cut, or second string. If you're familiar with the concept of a "reserve" bottling of a winery's more expensive, higher quality wine, a second wine is basically the opposite of that, where the winery's "first" bottling, also known as its grand vin, is the highest quality and most expensive of the winery's bottlings.
The practice has its roots in the late 1800s and seems to have started in France's Bordeaux region. The juice from the best grapes goes into the best barrels, and the best barrels of wine go into the grand vin, but there's often still some great wine leftover that didn't make it into the final blend. That leftover wine can be bottled as a second wine, and is usually sold at a considerable discount compared with the price for the winery's grand vin.
Sorting out which wine goes where can happen in the vineyard (often the youngest vines are contenders for a second wine), or in the winery, after the wine has been barreled and tasted. If there's still wine leftover after making a second wine (or if a winery doesn't want to make any additional bottlings) remaining juice or wine is then sold off in bulk to be bottled by other brands.
Second labels are made by the same winemakers and often using the same or similar practices as their more expensive sister wines, but typically sold for a fraction of the price. That makes them quite popular with serious but savvy consumers, especially as the prices for Bordeaux first-growths and other world-class wines has risen over the past few decades. While second wines are still typically much more expensive than the average bottle on a grocery store shelf, they're considered relative values in the collecting world.
Second wines can be like a sneak peek at a winery's top bottling, and they're also usually intended for more near-term enjoyment compared with grands vins that might suggest years of cellaring. And wineries don't have to stop at just one second wine—some make entire tiers of second, third or even fourth wines.