What does "reserve" mean, anyway?

By Carson Demmond
Updated May 24, 2017
Credit: © Kara Pyle

Dear Decantress,
Are there any common words that you see on wine bottles that dupe unsuspecting novice wine drinkers into thinking the wine is more sophisticated than it really is? –Concerned Cynic

Hi Cynic,

So glad you asked. There’s a whole host of vanity phrases that appear on wine labels in this country that have zero meaning beyond their use as subliminal tools. The most grievously overused of them all? Reserve.

In certain European countries, the term (as it translates) denotes a legally defined extended period of aging. For a Chianti Classico to be labeled Riserva, it must be aged for a minimum of 24 months at the winery prior to its release. Spain’s Rioja can be Reserva (aged for a year in cask and two years in bottle) or even Gran Reserva (aged for two years in cask and three in bottle). Because it’s costly to hold wine back for so long, a winemaker typically uses only her top lots of grapes for these bottlings, so you can expect them to be complex, built to last, and perhaps a little oaky in their youth (new oak scents tend to dissipate over time, melding into the wine as it matures).

We don’t have an equivalent aging regulation structure here the U.S.. While there are certainly honest winemakers out there with legit two-tier release programs (wherein a basic bottling comes out first—and is less expensive—than a reserve bottling which sees more time in barrel), most instances of Reserve are complete bunk. That includes variations on the term like “Private Reserve,” “Vintner’s Reserve,” and “Family Reserve.” Since the word isn’t legally controlled, it’s basically an indication of whatever that winery’s marketing team wants it to be. I’d wager the wine is oak-aged or at least made to taste as though it is, but beyond that, no sommelier would be able to tell you what it means. The same is true for Selection. “Special Selection,” “Premium Selection,” and “Signature Selection,” are about as nebulous as a certain politician’s campaign rhetoric.

You’d think that a wine labeled “Barrel Select” would be a limited edition wine made from just a few best-tasting barrels in a winery’s cellar, right? But what if that winery’s whole production was labeled “Barrel Select"? What, pray, are they selecting from? Other phrases, such as “small lot” and “cask [insert number]” have to be taken with a grain of salt. Who knows what that winery’s definition of small is? And that cask number may have had some sort of historic significance, but nobody’s paying the winery a visit to verify that that specific cask is the one that wine is made in.

Yet another marketing device that gives zero real indication of wine quality is the unnecessarily heavy, embossed glass bottle. It’s a bit like the braggadocious business card from the iconic scene in American Psycho (“Oh my God. It even has a watermark.”) The wine may taste great, but you’re paying for its fancy packaging, too.

Have a wine situation? Send your questions to Food & Wine's Decantress at decantress@foodandwine.com