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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 champagnes.

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.




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