reserve wines in the us: the emperor has very few clothes

Is the term reserve wine on a wine label essentially meaningless? I suppose it depends on who you’re asking, and what wine you’re asking about.

Overheard in a wine shop, a customer came into the store asking, very specifically, for the RESERVE Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Not their regular one. The RESERVE.

When it was explained to her Kendall Jackson’s Chardonnay grand reserve  is their regular Chardonnay, she insisted it wasn’t.

“No, the Kendall Jackson’s Chardonnay grand 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. The wine shop owner did not argue. The customer is always right, right?

reserve wines

Reserve Wines In The US

In the US, that would be wrong.

The term reserve on a wine label is essentially meaningless in the US. 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 Kendall Jackson (and I don’t mean to pick on Kendall Jackson, 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, Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve line is their entry level wine.

It’s a brand. Technically, all the wines they make are reserve. Still feel special?

Kendall Jackson 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.

Reserve Wine Defined

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.

Some wineries in the US do actually use this term correctly. But others… not so much. It’s more of a marketing tactic.

Italy and Spain both have strict regulations regarding the use of the terms riserva (Italy) and reserva (Spain).

Spain’s Reserva Wines Regulation

Spain has a highly complex aging system for their reserva and gran reserva wines.

Reserva wines must be aged for 3 years. These wines must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 6 months during this time.

Italy’s Riserva Wines Regulation

Same with Italian wines.

In Italy you see the term riserva most often on bottles from Tuscany — Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and in the Piedmont — Barolo and Barbaresco.

Italian Riserva wines will be aged a minimum of 2 years up to 4 years for Amarone.

Barolo must be aged 5+ years.

Should There Be Regulations For Reserve Wines In The US?

From a consumer perspective, yes. I think there should be regulations if a producer is to show “Reserve Wine” on the label.

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 mostly, I’d rather have the choice.

For US wines, the bottomline is . . . buyer be a little beware. Ask the producer (if you’re actually at the winery) how long the bottle has been aging compared to the other wines not labeled.

Or ask your local wine shop owner.

Reserve Wines FAQ

Why is reserve wine more expensive?

Because reserve wines are generally made from better grapes, and aged for longer before release, production costs are significantly higher, so reserva, riserva, and reserve wines are going to be more expensive than the regular non-reserve bottling.

What does Reserva mean in wines?

Spain has a highly complex aging system for their reserva and gran reserva wines. Reserva wines must be aged for 3 years. These wines must be aged in oak barrels for a a minimum of 6 months during this time.

What is the difference between reserve and Grand Reserve wine?

A “reserva” wine has been aged at least 3 years, with at least one of those in a barrel.“Gran reserva” means that it was aged at least 5 years, with a minimum of 2 years in oak. In addition, gran reserva wines are typically made in only outstanding vintages.

What makes a wine a riserva?

Traditionally, Italian wines labeled “riserva” are made with riper grapes and undergo longer periods of aging. This often results in a flavor that many consider better. Definitely made to “reserve” for special occassions.

Who makes Trader Joe’s Reserve wine?

As of 2022, Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve Pinot Noir 2021 is bottled by Carneros cellars in Napa, this Pinot Noir is 14.5% ABV.

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