Q. Are reserve wines really any better than other wines?
A. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the words on a wine label told you something about what’s inside? Unfortunately, the word “reserve” often doesn’t mean a thing. By tradition, reserve wines are a cut above a producer’s typical offerings; they’re usually made with the best grapes and sometimes receive longer aging. While many wineries still adhere to this standard, there’s nothing to stop others from slapping the “reserve” label on any wine they wish. The result is that the term sometimes winds up as nothing more than a gimmick to get consumers to pay attention to otherwise ordinary wine.
Occasionally, agreements or laws require “reserve” to be more than a marketing hustle. The Washington Wine Quality Alliance requires member wineries in that state to use the term only when describing their higher-quality wines—and no more than 10 percent of the winery’s production. For the few other instances, check out the spelling: In Spain, Portugal and Italy, the words “Reserva” and “Riserva” can be applied only to better—usually, longer-aged—wines.
—Charles Smothermon, a food and wine writer in Laurin, Mont.