There was a time when the word Reserve tweaked a chord of wine lust in the minds of eager enophiles. Then came "Winemaker's Reserve," "Cellar Reserve," "Vintner's Reserve," and "Grand Reserve" - add your own favorite to the list. There are no federal regulations or controls for using the term and it's perhaps that which has given rise to the term now deeply muddled by misinterpretation, misunderstanding and, worst of all, misuse. Yes, this is nothing new - wine scribes have complained about it for years but they haven't yet impressed either the industry or the government's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) sufficiently to do something about the clear fallacy of Reserve wines in America.
Is a Reserve Good or Not?
Everyone knows, of course, that the Reserve idea is to herald wines of special quality in limited supply and superior to their "regular" bottlings It's curious that Reserve has evolved for fine wine as it brings to mind several conflicting meanings. Among these is "second class" likened to reserves who come off the bench to replace first team players. Another interpretation is something "shy and elusive" in the manner of introverted people. Obviously neither of these relate to wines of quality distinction. We often use the word "reserve" as an epithet for something pulled aside out of public reach. Restaurant tables are reserved as are tickets to an event so that nobody else gets them. Yet, quite to the contrary, Reserve wines are pushed out clearly into the public reach so that everybody can reach them.
Secondly are some of the misunderstandings that a Reserve wine declaration can generate. For thinking wine enthusiasts there is that nagging feeling that winemakers releasing the same varietal in both Reserve and regular editions are inferring that their regular is inferior. This can descend to even further confusion when the media scores a particular vintner's Reserve wine lower than his regular – and indicates the Reserve is priced significantly higher. Can we help from thinking that perhaps either the vintner or the wine writer was confused in identifying superior quality? Perhaps even worse is when both the Reserve and regular are scored the same and it's obvious what that infers.
I Think It's Good
Back to the original idea of Reserve heralding wines of special quality in limited supply, there is the oft misuse of Reserve labels pasted on wines having no provenance of being either one. Tens of thousands of cases of any single release is hardly evoking any type of Reserve. Indeed, such may be better labeled as "Reservoir." How easy is it to resist any wine labeled as "Family Reserve?" If these are truly held aside for a vintner's family there are some interesting notions that can be taken from why such bottles are now for sale.
Are there lessons to be taken from Mother Europe? Oddly enough, the French have no national statute for the use of Reserve on their wine labels. Peer pressure seems to work there. Spanish wine law requires Reserva red wines to be aged no less than three years before release – and at least one year of that has to be in wood. Gran Reserva reds must have five years aging with two in oak. Whites require less time. Italy has a complex set of Riserva regulations. The Barolo and Barbareso Riservas of Piemonte require five years and four years aging respectively. Tuscan Chianti Classico Riserva has a 27 month minimum with Vino Nobile de Montepulciano Riserva four years. Brunello di Montalcino must age at least five years with a one year minimum in wood.
It's beyond unlikely that the TTB would promulgate anything like what the Italians and Spanish have in place. One has to think that replacing the word Reserve with another superlative begs another plethora of false impressions. And putting a production limit on Reserve wines is totally not in the American way of doing things. Perhaps the French peer pressure might work with something magical within the industry ala Meritage.
Maybe the Bordealais have this one right. The chateaux barons have created "second labels" as an honest expression of second rate blends that actually celebrate their established grand marques. Seconds often closely relate to their First Label brand identity with a charm that registers lower price value. Nice to say, although a bit unrealistic as Second Label releases often struggle in the marketplace.
Hopefully there are few enophiles who literally buy into the Reserve idea anymore. The decay of all the meaningless Reserve statements on wine labels probably won't ruin our lives. Perhaps the obvious lesson is that the finest vintners make only one type – their best.
Dr. Vine has authored four wine books and is Purdue University's Professor of Enology Emeritus. He recently retired after 21 years as the Wine Consultant for American Airlines.