Reserve Wines in the US: The Emperor Has Very Few Clothes

Last week, a customer came into the store asking, very specifically, for the RESERVE Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Not their regular one. The RESERVE. When I told her Kendall Jackson’s reserve Chardonnay is their regular Chardonnay, she insisted it wasn’t. “No, the reserve is the better one.” Score one for the Kendall Jackson marketing team. Because there isn’t a “worse” one. Their Vintner’s Reserve line is their entry level wine. There is no quality level below that. I decided it wasn’t worth the argument. The customer is always right, right?

Wrong.

In the US, the term reserve on a wine label is essentially meaningless. The Federal Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), the governmental entity that regulates wine labels, considers reserve a brand name or a title, not an indication of higher quality. In 2010, the TTB held hearings on the use of the term reserve, but ultimately decided not to decide anything. So, the term remains undefined, and mostly meaningless. Reserve has no legal definition or meaning. Any meaning is implied — that the reserve wine you’re buying is somehow better — higher quality, made with better grapes, and treated to longer aging in oak barrels. Special. Fortunately, most wineries who use the term reserve on their labels do so to indicate a wine that truly is more special. For others, it’s simply marketing.

Back to KJ (and I don’t mean to pick on KJ, it’s just the easiest example). Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is America’s number one selling Chardonnay, and has been for over two decades. They make and sell over 3 million cases of wine per year. Again, their Vintner’s Reserve line is their entry level wine. It’s a brand. Technically, all the wines they make are reserve. Still feel special?

Buy Vintner's Reserve | Kendall-Jackson Wines
Photo via Kendall Jackson website.

KJ has a line above Vintners Reserve that uses grapes from a specified geographic area (rather than just California), and they call those wines Grand Reserve. Really special.

Historically, the term reserve was used when a winemaker would hold back, or “reserve” some of their best wine. The wine could have come from higher quality grapes, a more specific vineyard area, or out of specific barrels that were making a more interesting wine than others. Those wines would be aged a little bit longer, and come out tasting more complex than the “regular” wines released earlier. This requires considerable cellar space, and makes production costs significantly higher. Reserve wines should be more expensive.

Italy and Spain both have strict regulations regarding the use of the terms riserva and reserva. Spain has a highly complex aging system for their reserva and gran reserva wines. Ditto Italy (you see the term riserva most often on bottles from Tuscany — Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Piedmont — Barolo and Barbaresco).

In the US, the state of Washington is the only state that has adopted an actual (albeit voluntary) regulation to help define what reserve means. The Washington Wine Quality Alliance (WWQA), declared that the word reserve has to mean something if you use it on your wine label. Only 3,000 cases or 10% (whichever is greater) of a winery’s total production can be labeled that way, and those wines must be designated as a higher quality wine.

For me, I’ll happily pay the extra $$ for reserva/riserva wines in Spain and Italy. Because they really do represent a wine that’s a little more special, and I love the flavors and complexity that the extra aging requirements add to the wine. But for US wines, the bottomline is . . . buyer be a little beware.

Salud!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s