When shopping for wine, you will inevitably come across the term “reserve” on the label. These reserve wines usually have a much higher price tag than non-reserve wines, and one could assume that the reserve wines are of higher quality. This is not always the case though.
What Is a Reserve Wine?
Traditionally, all aspects of making wine were done manually. Grapes were hand-picked and sorted, de-stemmed, and then crushed (often by foot). Then the grapes were fermented in barrels or vats. While the wines aged, the makers would occasionally taste test the wine. When testing found one batch of wine to be particularly good, the maker would “reserve” it for special aging or use.
Most wines are made with machinery and there is little human interaction involved. Large machines harvest and de-stem the grapes. The grapes are also crushed with large machines before they are put into massive vats for fermenting. Modern technology makes it possible to control the various factors of winemaking, such as temperature and rate of fermentation. As a result, the wines produced are of a more uniform quality. However, these wines are also usually inferior in quality to hand-produced wine because little attention is paid to the quality and type of grape and manufacturers often use techniques to expedite the fermentation process.
With wines produced with modern techniques, a true “reserve” is not possible because all batches of the wine are homogenous in quality. Many wine manufacturers simply stick the term “reserve” on their labels as a marketing gimmick so they can demand a higher price. To combat these marketing gimmicks and ensure quality control in wine, some countries have initiated laws about reserve wines.
Reserve Wine Laws
There is a rich history of winemaking in Europe and, to ensure quality control, many countries have enacted laws about how wines can be labeled. Laws vary per country but there are a few main reasons that a wine might be entitled to the reserve label.
- Made from a high-quality grape
- Aged for a minimum period of time
- Aged using a specific process
Italian Reserve Wine Laws
In Italy, which has a history of winemaking going back over 2,000 years, wine labeling is highly regulated. Italian wines are primarily labeled by the origin and grape varieties. In addition to these classifications, wines can also be labeled as riserva (reserve) if they meet certain aging standards. There are five notorious types of Italian reserve wines.
- Chianti Classico Riserva: Aged at least 27 months
- Vino Nobile de Montepulciano Riserva: Aged at least 3 years
- Brunello di Montalcino Riserva: Aged at least 5 years, at least two of which are in barrel or cask
- Barolo Riserva: Aged at least 5 years
- Barbaresco Riserva: Aged at least 4 years
Note that the non-reserve versions of these wines must also follow specific rules for aging. For example, non-reserve Barolo wines must be aged for 4 years. So, it would not be appropriate to compare the different types of wine based solely on whether they are reserve or not. A non-reserve Barolo wine could still be of higher quality than a Chianti Classico Riserva.
Spanish Reserve Wine Laws
The term reserva is used for reserve wines from Spain. There are two classifications of reserve wine: Reserva and Gran Reserva. Wine-labeling laws state that Spanish red reserve wines must be aged at least 3 years, of which one year is in cask. Spanish white wine reserve wines must be aged at least 2 years, of which 6 months are in cask. Spanish Gran Reserva red wines must be aged at least 5 years, of which 2 years are in oak.
Australian Reserve Wine Laws
The Australians introduced a system of labeling wines in the 1990s. Under the law, wines are first labeled by the type of grapes used, the region, and the aging process. These wines can then be labeled as classic or reserve. Like with the Italian wines, it is not possible to compare two different types of wine based solely on whether the wine is reserve or not. However, the reserve label can be used to compare two bottles of the same type of wine. For example, a Kremstal DAC reserve wine will be of a higher quality than a Kremstal DAC classic wine.
U.S. Reserve Wine Laws
In the United States, there are no laws regulating the use of the term “reserve” on wine labels. Some wine manufacturers will put the term reserve on all of their bottles of wine. Other manufacturers will use terms like “Vintner’s Reserve” on some bottles and use “Grand Reserve” to indicate wines of higher quality.
How to Buy a Reserve Wine
When buying wine, whether or not the wine is “reserve” should not be the first consideration. Buyers should make their selection based first on several other factors.
- Type of wine:You want to make sure that the wine will match the occasion and meal. For example, white wines are better suited to light fare and warm weather, whereas red wines are better suited for steak dinners and cold weather.
- Region:The soil and climate of an area can significantly impact the characteristics of a wine. Thus, some regions are known for producing certain types of wine. Becoming familiar with the major wine regions of the world can make it much easier to choose a wine.
- Variety:There are over a dozen main varieties of wine, each of which has its own specific characteristics. For example, cabernet sauvignon is usually very rich, whereas merlot is often light.
- Classifications:Most old-world (European) wines have specific rules about how wines can be classified. You will need to learn the basics of these classification systems in order to identify which wines are of higher quality.
Once you have narrowed down your options based on these factors, then you can consider whether the wine is reserve or not. Just keep in mind that “reserve” wines in some countries (such as the United States) are not regulated. With reserve wines from countries in which the labeling is regulated (such as major wine-producing countries in Europe), the reserve label is an indication of a higher quality.