What is a “Reserve” Wine?

You see it on the label all the time – the word  Reserve, Reserva or Riserva.  At least on the surface that must mean there’s something a bit more special about the wine, right?  And that’s usually reinforced by the price, which is more than a non-reserve wine from the same producer.  The answer is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

As with many things about wine there is a lot of “it depends” in that answer. In the New World wine countries – the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused.  Therefore, here’s a short guided walk through the meaning of those words on the label.

United States:  The term “Reserve” or other iterations of it on the label has no legal or regulatory meaning. It does not automatically mean higher quality. That’s right, it’s a labeling that is completely up to the winery to use in whatever way they chose.  I think that’s called marketing!

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe this is meant to be misleading, rather, wineries typically use “reserve” to indicate they have somehow treated the wine with more special care –  and most will also tell you why it’s more special.  They may have made it from selected vineyards or plots or from a blend of specific barrels or types of oak.  Whatever the case, the Reserve is meant to stand out, fill in their brand offering and generate more selective sales – and, according to the winery, give you a more special sip. The key is to know what you’re buying – so read the back label, check the winery website or rely on a good wine store to help you decide.  And here’s an earlier post on reading the label in general that you may find useful too.

Italy: There is no country wide rule for the use of Riserva but it’s definitive within the different Italian appellations.  Wine from the Chianti zone has different requirements than the Piedmont or Montalcino or the Veneto.  However the general rule is that Riserva have to be aged longer before being released. In Chianti that means a Riserva has been aged at least 2 years and has slightly higher alcohol, for a Brunello it’s 5 years with at least 2 in wood and 6 months in the bottle, and for Barolo the minimum aging is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4 years. These are all meant to be higher quality than non-reserve wines and they are “reserved” or held back for you by the winery while they age and develop. Further Italian wine basics can be found here.

Spain: Thankfully Spain is really straight forward and has specific aging designations.  For quality red wines Reserva is 3 years with 1 in the barrel and Gran Reserva means 5 years with 18 months in the barrel. For white and Rose’ it is 2 years/6 months for Reserva and 4 years/6 months for Gran Reserva.  So for Spanish wines it’s very clear that wine has been treated to extended cellaring before it’s ready for you to sip. And here’s a link to more about Spainsh Reds.

You won’t typically see Reserve designations for French wine (although it’s not precluded) since there is defined labeling based on the classification systems within the appellations and these are highly focused on the place and producer.  For more see earlier posts on Bordeaux and Burgundy.

So next time you’re in the wine shop, or looking over the list at the restaurant, and the word Reserve pops out you have this little sip of label knowledge to guide you!

Enjoy your reserved and unreserved sips!

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