What Does "Reserve" Mean?
© by John Juergens
As I mentioned in a previous article, the amount of human handling that occurs during the wine making process usually is directly related to the quality of the final product. These hand-made wines almost always are aged in oak barrels and the wine in each barrel will develop a little differently from that in the other barrels. For this reason, the winemaker has to monitor the progress of the wine by tasting a small sample from each barrel on a regular basis, about once a month. Occasionally, the wine in some barrels will develop over time much better than that in other barrels. This could happen to only a few barrels or it could happen to almost all of the barrels.
When the barrel aging process is finished and before the wine is blended back together, the winemaker usually will hold back-- or reserve-- the wine in those barrels that he or she believes is considerably higher in quality or in some way unique. This wine is then bottled separately with a special designation as a reserve wine to distinguish from the other wine of that same year. Winemakers will use such terms as "Reserve", "Vintner's Reserve", "Special Cask Bottling", and so forth to identify this wine. Unfortunately, there are no rules or laws governing this practice and some wineries call everything they make a reserve wine. Obviously, this can cause not only confusion, but the consumer might end up paying for the reserve designation but not getting anything particularly special in the bottle.
This is one of those annoying features about American wines in particular that you have to learn how to decipher. For example, when Robert Mondavi Winery puts the word "Reserve" on a bottle of wine it truly is a wine of superior quality and the price can be as much as ten or twenty dollars higher per bottle than the regular bottling. On the other hand, Kendall Jackson, one of the most consistent wine producers and one of my favorites, labels all of their wines as some level of reserved, from Vintner's Reserve to Grand Reserve. The respective prices of each wine gives a clue to the relative quality of each level, according to the winemaker, that is.
Another problem with this whole reserve labeling system is that frequently it does not hold up in the tasting of the wines. I have tried many so-called reserve wines and their regularly labeled counterparts. Even though the reserve wines often cost more than twice as much as the other wine, for many I could not identify anything about the reserve wine that warranted that designation, let alone the high price tag. On the other hand, I have had some remarkable reserve wines that were deserving of the distinction and maybe the price. What I noticed in these kinds of wines is that they are very complex, and it takes a lot of practice and concentration to sort through all the layers of flavors and aromas
If you have the inclination, the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent wines to illustrate this issue for yourself. The regular bottling of each wine is about $12 and the reserve wines are $18 - $23. It is very important to disguise the identity of the wines to prevent bias. You should notice a difference between the two bottlings, but you also need to decide which wine you like best before revealing their identities. It is very possible that you will prefer the less expensive wine because it will more straightforward without a lot of confusing flavors and aromas.
The very broad rule of thumb that I use in trying to sort this out is that there really are no true reserve wines under about$15 - $20. So I would just ignore the word or view it as marketing hype for wines below this price level. And my other piece of advice is that unless you can really appreciate subtle differences within and among wines, don't waste your money on the high priced reserve wines because you will just be left wondering what all the fuss is about.