Everybody Loves a Deal: Alter Ego

Everybody loves a deal, and some of the best deals in Bordeaux these days are the “second” wines of the top-rated Bordeaux properties.  “Second wines” come from parcels of the vineyard or barrels in the cellar that, for whatever reason, just don’t measure up to the producer’s standard for that particular year.

Sometimes one grape variety does not ripen as well as the others, and wine made from it finds a home in the second wine.  Other times, the fruit from young vines in the newly-replanted portions of the vineyard is not suitable for prime time.  Much like a manager decides which players make the starting roster and which go to the minor leagues, the winemaking staff tastes wine from the barrels in the cellar as they mature and decide which ones should be relegated to the junior varsity.

Second wines from top-notch properties such as Château Margaux or Château Palmer are excellent deals for consumers.  While they never will develop the complexity and class of the property’s grand vin (first wine), they are ready to drink far sooner, and typically sell for a fraction of the price.  The production of a second wine is a double win for the château.  The quality of the first wine increases instantaneously by removing the lower quality juice.  (Alternative ways to increase quality–upgrading the vineyards or winery–all take considerable time and money).  And though the château sells the second wine at a lower price, they make more than if they sold it off in bulk.  (Wine not deemed suitable for the second wine is still sold off in bulk).

Château Palmer, one of the great estates in Bordeaux, has 130 acres of vineyards in the village of Margaux.  Classified as a third growth in the Médoc Classification of 1855, it makes better wine than that 19th century ranking indicates.  In some years Palmer outshines its first growth neighbor, Château Margaux.

Bernard de Laage, Directeur de Developpement at Château Palmer, makes the point that they make “another–as opposed to a second” wine at Palmer, which they call Alter Ego.  Palmer makes a conscious decision to construct two different kinds of wines, according to de Laage.  He stresses Alter Ego is not a true “second” wine, because they start selecting the fruit for it in the vineyard and vinify those grapes differently.  For example, at Château Margaux, all the wine is vinified the same.  The winemaker tastes each barrel and designates some for the grand vin and others for the second wine, Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux.  At Palmer, according to de Laage, certain parts of the vineyard, which may differ year to year, are identified at the time of harvest as producing grapes for Alter Ego.  These grapes are vinified differently to create a more forward drinking style of wine.

Alter Ego is meant to be less complex, earlier maturing than Palmer is.  To this end, when they can identify clear differences in the vineyard, those crafting the wines will make the separation at harvest time and alter fermentation to bring out the fruit character and more supple, forward tannins for wines destined for Alter Ego.  When they can’t distinguish in the vineyard those grapes destined for Alter Ego, they will make the selection either after fermentation or during the aging process.  Once identified, the remainder of winemaking will be adjusted to suit the unique style of Alter Ego.

Palmer introduced Alter Ego with the 1998 vintage.  Prior to that time, they made only a small amount of a true second wine, Réserve de Général, which accounted for about 10 percent of their total production.  Alter Ego, in contrast, represents up to 40 percent of the total production at Château Palmer, which means the amount of Château Palmer itself has decreased, but the quality and consistency has increased dramatically.  Now they can focus on making a wine styled for the Château Palmer and one styled for Alter Ego.

Palmer is an unusual property in Margaux because its vineyards are contiguous, surrounding the château itself, whereas other chateaux often have parcels scattered here and there.  Also, Palmer’s vineyards are planted with an unusually high proportion of Merlot (at least for the Médoc) at almost 47%.  De Laage believes that Merlot planted on Palmer’s deep gravel soil produces a fundamentally different wine, responsible for Palmer’s exotic bouquet, from Merlot planted on clay, as is the case on the Right Bank, where the wines have far more structure.  The remainder of the vineyard is planted with 47% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot.  Prior to 1997, they had 10-15% of the vineyard planted with Cabernet Franc, but it was pulled out because it gave inconsistent results.

De Laage admits that although Palmer had been a bit late in embracing this common technique for increasing the quality and consistency of Château Palmer, he is very pleased with the outcome.  “Alter Ego is an excellent wine with a different style from Palmer, and Château Palmer is now more consistent.”

Just as with Château Palmer, the blend of Alter Ego varies from year to year depending on the growing conditions.  In the 1998 Alter Ego, Cabernet predominated while in 1999, 2000 and 2001 Merlot comprised two-thirds of the blend.  In 2002 and 2003, the blend was practically equal parts Cabernet and Merlot.  Petit Verdot never makes it into the blend of Alter Ego because, according to de Laage, it adds too much structure for an early drinking wine.

The Wines

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 1998 ($40): Their first vintage, the 1998 is marred by hard tannins, from Cabernet prematurely harvested because of impending rain.  85

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 1999 ($50): Margaux is an area that did exceptionally well in 1999, which was an under-rated vintage overall.  De Laage thinks 1999 in Margaux is similar to 1983, perhaps because the area was spared from the rains that afflicted the rest of the Médoc.  For whatever reason, the Alter Ego1999 is excellent, far fresher and livelier than the 1998.  With air, it gets even better, so I suspect it has a few more years to go before it reaches its peak maturity.  It is ripe, long and harmonious, with a great perfume.  92

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($55): No surprise that we see excellence here, given the vintage.  Supple and succulent, this is more opulent than the 1999 Alter Ego.  It’s a bargain compared to the 2000 Château Palmer, which is selling for $170 in Boston (not to mention many overpriced California Cabernets).  94

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 2001 ($50): Despite the dominance of Merlot, the 2001 remains slightly hard and not yet ready to drink.  But the balance is there, and the haunting aroma and lingering finish suggests it will continue to evolve nicely over the next several years.  90

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 2002 ($40): The Alter Ego is unexpectedly concentrated for a wine from 2002, a relatively cool year in Bordeaux.  Coulure (a poor fruit set) affected the Merlot, caused a markedly reduced crop and explains the concentrated flavors.  It’s remarkably charming now.  89

Alter Ego, Margaux (Bordeaux, France) 2003 ($45): De Laage thinks the so-called “low acidity” of the 2003 reds just reflects inaccurate measurements at the time of pressing.  He maintains that the acids were concentrated near the seeds and not measured accurately when the grapes were pressed.  The apparent increase in acidity after fermentation, which is chemically impossible, resulted from the acids going into solution where they could be measured.  He believes many of the 2003s reds will be great wines.  The 2003 Alter Ego, certainly ripe, even slightly jammy, and more forward than usual even for Alter Ego, lacks the elegance and refinement of the 2000.  Nonetheless, it is certainly delicious and easy to drink now.  90

May 9, 2006