What does Reserve mean on a wine label?
When a wine is offered for tasting at 4.0 Cellars that includes the word “Reserve” on the label, customers and tasters typically recognize the designation and are curious as to what it means. In the United States, and several other key wine countries (Australia, New Zealand, Chile), the term Reserve has little or no meaning, at least that which is defined. The following explores this issue and will hopefully inform the reader about the term Reserve on a U.S., especially a Texas, wine label.
The concept of Reserve probably began a very long time ago in Europe when better vintages or vineyard plots produced exceptional quality and longer-lived wines. As winemakers recognized top-quality fruit from the best vineyards and wines made from really good vintages, portions of the wine were held back or reserved for later release. This resulted in the need to designate reserved wines that were typically better than “normal” production, and Reserve on the wine label became a means of letting customers know this was something special. Holding to this tradition, Reserve on a label today often does indicate a higher quality wine, but since the term has no defined meaning for U.S. wines -- buyer beware.
Some countries do have a defined meaning for Reserve, usually related to longer aging requirements that tend to produce wines of higher quality. In Spain and Portugal, ‘Reserva’ means the wine has been aged longer than normal, typically 3 years with a minimum of 6 months (usually longer) in oak barrels. This is most often seen on Tempranillo-based wines from famous regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero. In Italy, a number of wine regions use the term ‘Riserva’ to designate a higher quality wine aged longer than normal, and often in oak barrels. In Austria, where cooler climate can often limit optimum ripeness, the term Reserve indicates a wine produced from riper grapes with at least 13% alcohol.
In the United States, the word ‘Reserve’ is classified as a brand name, or title, rather than an indication of special treatment or higher quality. In 2010 the TTB – the government organization that regulates U.S. wine labels – held hearings to discuss terms like Reserve on wine labels, but eventually decided not to make a ruling. Thus, Reserve remains undefined. Fortunately, most winemakers and producers tend to respect the implied meaning of Reserve and only use the term for higher quality wines.
In the U.S., only Washington has adopted a regulation to help define Reserve. The Washington Wine Quality Alliance allows members to call a wine Reserve if it represents a top-quality product and is no more than 10% (or 3000 cases, whichever is greater) of the total production.
Most often, Reserve on a U.S. wine label indicates the wine was aged longer than normal, and typically in oak barrels or in contact with oak alternatives. For example, a portion or cuvée of Roussanne wine fermented in stainless steel (SS) tank could be separated and placed in oak barrels for several months aging. This would tend to impart vanilla and baking spice flavors as well as moderate oak tannins to the barrel aged wine, and make it different from the “normal” batch of Roussanne that remained in SS tank prior to bottling. Since aging in barrels is more costly and time consuming, the winemaker might use the term Reserve to indicate the barrel-aged version of Roussanne.
Longer aging for a batch of wine, most commonly red wine, is sometimes noted by the use of Reserve on the label to distinguish from a similar wine aged a shorter period of time. This concept is similar to the Reserva and Riserva programs in Spain and Italy, respectively.
Another approach to designating a Reserve wine is barrel selection. For example, a winemaker may produce 100 barrels of merlot, aging in various types and ages of oak barrels. At some point, while checking and tasting the barrels, some may be readily distinguished as better (by the winemaker’s palate) than the rest. Thus, a barrel selection of the best (10, 15, 20, or so) may be set aside, perhaps aged longer, then bottled with a Reserve label, and sold at a higher price.
A wine made from higher quality grapes is sometimes labeled as a Reserve. For example, a winery may produce two different Roussanne wines, one from carefully farmed estate vineyards and another from purchased fruit. If the estate version turned out to be of higher quality, it might be labeled a Reserve. Even grapes from different blocks in the same vineyard may differ in overall quality, prompting the use of Reserve to designate wine made from higher quality grapes.
What you hope does not happen often is the Reserve label used as a marketing strategy to simply warrant a higher price for a bottle of wine. This can and does occur, but most producers in the U.S. and Texas tend to respect the implied meaning of Reserve and only use the term for higher quality wines.
The bottom line is this – without an explanation, either on the label or by a winemaker/tasting room associate, it can be difficult to determine what is meant by Reserve on a wine label. So, when you visit a winery or tasting room and encounter a Reserve wine, ask the question, “Why does this wine warrant Reserve on the label?” Most of the time you will receive an informative answer, and possibly create a better connection with the person serving the wine.
Several simple references that may provide further information regarding Reserve wine labels.