Once upon a time, the term "Reserve" indicated that a wine had been aged a specific amount of time, depending on the regulations of that region—assuming the region regulates that sort of information. Wineries only added the word to the label if they actually produced bottles that were also non-reserve (the latter was generally inferior and less expensive). Well, the days of clear, honest messaging are gone.
Today, if you see the term "Reserve" on a New World bottle, it is likely just part of mass-market wine branding effort. It's probably misleading hype. Ignore it. Not all countries regulate the use of such terms so wine lovers like you and me are left scratching our heads when we see Reserve and non-Reserve bottles on store shelves and on restaurant wine lists.
Anthony Dias Blue, editor in chief of The Tasting Panel magazine, published a rant on this very topic last month asking: "What does 'Vintner's Reserve' signify if it is printed on every one of over 20 million bottles? Does the vintner have that many friends and family?" Essentially, he's pining for a time about two decades ago.
So which nations do honor the system? Well, most winemaking countries in the Old World. And by Old World, I mean Europe, where the European Union exercises control over wine in various systems based on France's AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée)—which the French conjured up in the Nineteenth Century to prevent fraudulent claims of pedigreed appellations. All of the great European winemaking powers have rules in place, state by state, region by region, regulating what language is permitted on each label.
The problem is that the labels are not easy to decipher, unless you study the laws. For instance, if you buy a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva, according to Italian law, that wine must be aged in barrel at least two years before release. If you buy a bottle of Bodegas Valdemar 'Conde de Valdemar' Gran Reserva Rioja from Spain, according to Spanish law it must be aged at least two years in oak, followed by three years in bottle before it can be released. However, Spanish winemakers hold them much longer, until they deem them perfectly ready for immediate enjoyment, which is why the current release of Conde de Valdemar is 2005!
The bottom line is this: If it's from Europe and the label indicates that it's a Reserve (in any language), you can be sure that it has been aged longer than non-reserve bottles and is worth more than non-reserve bottles from the same winery or region.
In the New World—including South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and especially here in the U.S.—there is no such system in place. Sure, we have the American Viticultural Area (AVA), which designates wine grape-growing regions throughout the country with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), under the U.S. Department of the Treasury. But amidst all the red tape you'll find there's nothing to regulate the use of "Reserve" and what it must mean if it appears on a wine label. The term is so misused on American bottles that most of wine critics and sommeliers ignore it unless we know that the producer has a sense of integrity. And that, unfortunately, isn't very helpful for you. Proceed with caution.
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