“Since this wine is labeled as ‘Reserve’ that means I have to love it — right?”
Novice wine tasters often wonder what a term means but are hesitant to ask. It is common for people who are new to wine to shy away from admitting what they have not yet learned.
Later, as people get more into wine, as they start learning and feeling comfortable with the lingo, feeling more relaxed while visiting tasting rooms and exploring wine lists, they have fun learning all the wonderful things this niche hobby offers.
Suddenly, something that was once incredibly intimidating becomes delightfully enchanting. Then the questions start flying. It’s a great milestone!
(Pro tip: When you are starting out or branching out, pose your questions to someone who is crazy about wine. They will joyfully answer your questions for hours.)
So let’s explore the term “reserve,” which is riserva in Italy and reserva in Spain. This is a confusing topic for various and valid reasons because it means different things depending on where you are in the world.
In Italy and Spain, “riserva” or “reserva” have specific meanings and Wine Folly is a great source for facts and information. Spanish wines labeled as such are required to spend six months in oak barrels and three years in bottle prior to release. In Rioja, the Tempranillo-based wines that carry the “Gran Reserva” designation must spend two years in barrel and three years in bottle. Italian regulations differ from region to region. In some parts, it’s only two years of aging. A Barolo must be aged three years. For a Barolo Riserva, it’s five years, but for a Barbaresco Riserva it’s just four years.
In the United States, there is no legal definition of a “reserve wine.” The Washington State Wine Commission formed the Washington Wine Quality Alliance in 1999 and attempted to create labeling standards, including defining the term “reserve.” Among the goals, starting with the 2000 vintage, was that “reserve” would only appear on the label of 10 percent of a Washington winery’s total production or on 3,000 cases of the particular variety, whichever is greater.
It was an effort applauded by many in the industry, including San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gerald Boyd. “This move by the WWQA is pro-consumer because it provides information to help wine-buyers make informed purchases,” wrote Boyd, a longtime journalist and educator who now lives on the Olympic Peninsula.
Unfortunately, interest among Washington state producers waned, and the standard was not officially adopted. The term remains open to interpretation so the vintner can label a wine “reserve” based on its own criteria. I can almost hear a few “ahhhs” of discovery as you read that. I’m going to bet at least one of you is thinking, “That’s why I didn’t like the reserve wine at so-and-so winery.”
Exactly! Just because an American winemaker deems a certain wine a “reserve” does not mean your palate will agree. Sometimes newbies assume if the wine is a “Reserve” that they are supposed to love it/prefer it, and feel discouraged if it falls short of their expectations.
The good news is because there are so many reasons to call it “reserve” that it is perfectly acceptable and downright encouraged for you to ask the reason for that word being used on a label. Consider it an invitation to learn something new.
A “reserve” label in the U.S. might indicate that very little was produced and is in limited supply. A “winemaker’s reserve” could indicate it was their personal favorite of the vintage.
Perhaps a winemaker designates one block or row of the vineyard to make this wine, so to set it apart from the rest, it’s labeled “reserve.” They may have handled the fruit differently on the crush pad and held the wine back from the rest of the lot, reserving it so that it shines on its own. Maybe the “reserve” wines were aged in higher-quality barrels or — to borrow the Old World criteria — they have been aged longer than the other wines from that vintage.
Maybe the winemaker has experimented with a new fermentation vessel or technique and finds it superior to their traditional program, so they call it “Reserve.”
I encourage you to ask questions about labels and inquire about the Reserve status when you can. An enthusiastic host in a tasting room will tell you the story, and I’m betting it will be entertaining.
When you are enjoying wines at home with friends, do a blind tasting and see if guests can pick the “reserve” wine out of the lineup or do a blind side-by-side with the 2017 Syrah against the 2017 Reserve Syrah from the same producer. Based upon my years at the tasting bar, I predict only about half will prefer “the reserve” because of palate variance.
Long-time colleague Andy Perdue might have said it best in a 2018 column for The Seattle Times: “My general rule … is that if I really liked the regular bottling, then the reserve of that wine is going to be special. I find it worth buying a reserve-level wine if I know a winemaker’s style, or if I enjoyed his or her reserve wines in the past.”
Words to live by!
Thank you for the feedback on my column in the inaugural issue. I was flattered that you took the time to communicate your thoughts — both positive and negative. Yes, I touched a few nerves.
Until next time, keep sipping, swirling, sniffing and learning.