Suppose you are out shopping for a special night and want to find a bottle of wine to fit the occasion. Seeing a bottle labeled “Reserve,” you might guess this bottle is somehow more special than the rest. What does “Reserve” really mean on a wine label?
Wineries use the word “Reserve” on the wine labels to indicate that the bottle of wine is special or different from other wines that they produce. There is no law or regulation to define what Reserve means across all wineries.
We’ll discuss what Reserve may mean on a wine bottle and how different wineries may use the word to distinguish their wines. We’ll provide some tips on how to tell if a Reserve wine is worth the extra cost or special consideration.
When Do Wineries Use Reserve for a Wine?
In wine history, Reserve wine used to be a wine that was held back, or reserved, by the winery to age. Wineries may have had several reasons to set back a certain number of bottles, such as a good winemaking year, grapes with special flavors, or wine that has the potential to improve with age. The winemaker might see high-quality fruit from the harvest and decide to reserve some of the bottles for aging, to be released for sale at a future date.
Only two countries in the world still have regulations to ensure that it is true, Spain and Italy. In Spain, reserved wine is a wine that has been aged for a minimum of three years, of which six months must have been in oak barrels. In Italy, the requirement is for most wines to be aged for a minimum of two years. Therefore, if you buy an imported bottle of wine from Italy or Spain labeled Riserva, Reserva, or Reserve, then you know that the wine has been aged. In a slightly different distinction, Portugal uses the Reserve label to indicate a wine that has a higher alcohol content, such as 13% ABV or higher.
In the United States, no such regulations exist. Some wineries may still hold to the tradition, while others just use the term to indicate that their bottle is simply more special than others. However, many winemakers tend to adhere to the history of the name and designate bottles that have been aged as “Reserve.” There are some self-regulated alliances of wine-makers that hold each other accountable to these and other standards that may not be governed by law.
There are many reasons a winery might designate a selection of wine as a reserve. One example might be that the winemaker takes the production of wine and age it in different types of barrels. Some of the wine might age in stainless steel containers, other in cheaper barrels, while the last in a high-quality oak barrel. If after aging any barrel of the wine is tasted and is deemed to be better than the others, the winemaker might choose a number of barrels to be reserved, aged longer, bottled, and then labeled and marketed as Reserve wine at a higher price point.
Another example of wine that might be labeled as Reserve could include where the grapes were sourced from. The winery might choose to purchase grapes from another vineyard in addition to the same variety they grow on their estate. The purchased grapes could be lower quality, equal to, or even better than the estate-grown grapes.
Estate-bottled wine is more prestigious than bottles that might need to be labeled as “Made and Bottled” by the winery due to the purchasing of grapes from elsewhere. The winery then may choose to sell the wine from purchased grapes at a lower price point, but then label their estate-bottled wine as “Reserve” for a higher price point.
Other Notes to Check for Reserve Wine
While you hope that when a wine is labeled as Reserve that it’s not simply a marketing ploy to encourage sales or result in a higher-priced wine. Reserve should indicate a higher quality and better-tasting wine. You may be able to read into the notes on the label to draw conclusions about whether the wine was aged and how it was aged.
Check the vintage dates on the bottle and make sure that the vintage is at least two or three years old. Read the description of the wine. If the flavor notes indicate vanilla, smoke, caramel, or other warmer flavor notes, the wine may have been aged in an oak barrel. If the year on the bottle is more recently, only a year or two old, then the wine has not been aged for long. If the flavor notes indicate the wine is more fruity without any hints at warmer flavor notes, it’s likely a younger wine or was aged in a more neutral barrel or tank.
If you encounter a reserve wine at a winery or wine tasting, feel free to ask why the wine deserves a Reserve label. The wine steward or sommelier should be able to tell you what qualities in the wine were noted as being unique or special, or if the wine had been aged for a particular time. You should be able to taste a difference too. The wine should have a smooth taste, where tannins have softened over time. There should not be a burn or harshness from the alcohol or tannins. The flavor notes should be complex and rich. If the taste burns or falls flat, the wine may not be worth of the Reserve designation.
Since Reserve is not a regulated term in the United States, pay close attention to these other notes on the bottle to see if you can tell if the bottle is really worth the Reserve label. While the wine might be well worth the cost or be especially better tasting, there is a chance with wines in the United States that Reserve could simply be used as a marketing trick to sell more wine.