Reserve Reservations (February 21, 2005)
Reserve, Réserve, Riserva, Reserva. This is not a lesson in Latin
declensions but a plea for enlightenment. It should be clear what these
words on a wine label signify in any language; but these days, it seems,
they can mean whatever the marketing gurus want them to mean.
Before I got into wine, "reserve" meant a stand-by player on
a soccer team. You weren't quite good enough to start the game, but if
someone got injured you were thrown into the fray, i.e., you were second
best. In the wine world the implication is that "reserve" means
something that's better than the general run of the press, deserving of
the best barrels.
In European wine regions the term has some significance, but you have
to be familiar with the wine regulations in the particular region to know
exactly what it means. For example, in Italy, Riserva means that the wine
in question has been given more barrel and/or bottle ageing before release
and has a higher alcoholic strength by a half or full degree of alcohol
than the non-Riserva wine. The word Riserva can only be used for DOC or
DOCG wines and it indicates the wine is of superior quality and has been
aged for at least 3 years before being released. But this can vary from
appellation to appellation. A Chianti Classico wine, for example, has
to be aged for one year; Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged for two.
Barbaresco Riserva is aged for 4 years and Barolo and Brunello receive
5 years of ageing.
One of the problems in Italy is that producers are not required to declare
their Riserva wines or to demarcate a given number of cases as Riserva
before they make their commercial release. There have been instances,
according to British wine merchant Tom Scott, where "this latitude
has allowed a certain number of houses simply to reclassify their unsold
inventory as Riserva in an effort to obtain a higher price, prompting
some calls for the abolition of the entire category."
In France, the meaning is confused by the Champagne region, where the
term cuvée de réserve means wines of one vintage that are
held in tanks to be blended with wines from future years to produce non-vintage
In Portugal, Reserva is used for wines of a good vintage that have at
least one half per cent more alcohol than the region's minimal requirement.
In Spain, a red wine, to be called Reserva, must have at least three years
of ageing a minimum of one year in wood and the rest in bottle
before a release date that is four years after the harvest. For whites,
the wine must spend at least two years in cask and bottle, having spent
a minimum of six months in oak. To be designated Gran Reserva a red wine
must be aged in barriques for at least two years and a further three years
in tank or bottle before it leaves the winery. Which means it spends six
years in the bodega! For whites, the ageing must be at least four years
in cask and bottle, of which a minimum of six months must be in oak.
In the New World there is a Wild West attitude towards the term Reserve.
Its use is as indiscriminate and profligate as confetti at a wedding.
Here is a sampling of just some usage you'll find on wine labels from
California to Chile, from Australia to Ontario:
- Estate Reserve
- Founders Reserve
- Grand Reserve
- Private Reserve
- Proprietor's Reserve
- Proprietor's Grand Reserve
- Reserve Selection
- Select Reserve
- Vintner's Reserve
- Winemaker's Reserve
In some cases wines at bargain basement prices bear the term Reserve
when no non-Reserve wine is offered.
It's time for the industry to come up with some legal definition to govern
the use of this much-abused word. In Canada we should follow some aspects
of Europe when it comes to defining what a Reserve wine should be. We
don't age our wines as long as Barbaresco and Barolo or Rioja but we could
set a minimum period for holding back bottles of a good vintage so the
consumer is getting a wine that is not raw and has to be cellared for
a further year or two before it is anywhere near drinkable. This would
mean tightening up VQA regulations to govern minimum alcohol levels and
overall quality. We would also have to introduce regulations to control
the amount of chaptalisation (addition of sugar during fermentation to
raise alcohol by a degree or so) so that alcoholic strength alone is not
the decisive factor in permitting the use of the term.
Wineries should be proud of their Reserve wines and they deserve to be
paid more for them. Right now the consumer is not going to buy into the
concept of Reserve just because the word is on the label. For many of
us, the term Reserve on the label suggests a desperate, last-ditch ploy
by the marketing department to flog their product. And that spoils it
for the winemaker whose wine deserves the higher designation.