Reserva, Riserva, Reserve: What Do They Mean for Wine?

published Mar 25, 2010
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These terms: Reserva, Riserva, Reserve, Grand Reserve, Vintner’s Reserve and so forth — what exactly do they mean on a wine label? And is there any consistency between them?

Simply answered, these terms mean different things, depending on the origin of the wine.

Old World Wines
In general, the use of these terms in the old world is fairly regulated. Firstly, it is supposed to indicate a superior wine, a wine made from riper grapes, resulting in a higher minimum alcohol.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly, in the old world the terms also indicates a regulated minimum period of aging (longer that that required for non-reserve wines) before the wine is released for sale. The logic behind this being that these ‘superior’ wines have greater aging potential and can benefit from extended aging.

New World Wines
In contrast, in the New World, there is no such official regulation on usage of the terms. Each individual producer is free to create his own criteria for designating certain wines of ‘reserve’ level. However, it typically refers to a ‘superior’ range of wines.

When it comes to the New World, there is really no official regulation of the terms. Terms such as ‘Grand Reserve‘, ‘Vintner’s Reserve” etc are widely used.

At well-known Californian winery Kendall Jackson, there are two ‘reserve’ lines. First up is their Vintner’s Reserve range of wines, According to their website Vintner’s Reserve wines represent a cut above (but above what is not specified).

Next level up is KJ’s Grand Reserve range. In contrast to the Vintner’s Reserve the Grand Reserve wines are all made from grapes from Kendall Jackson estate owned vineyards in the cooler coastal parts of California.

Similarly, well-known Australian producer Jacob’s Creek has a Reserve line, a step up from its classic range. As with Kendall Jackson, the grapes for these wines come from better and cooler vineyard sites in South Australia.

Apart from being made from better grapes, reserve wines are more likely to see more time in oak (the logic – the better the wine, the more oak it can handle), and more likely from an oak barrel rather than alternatives such as chips or staves.

Spanish Wines
The terms Reserva and Gran Reserva are found on Spanish wines. Under Spanish wine law a Spanish Reserva red wine must be aged for a minimum of 3 years before release, of which one year must be in cask. Reserva white wines have a lower minimum aging period of 2 years of which 6 months must be in cask. For a Gran Reserva wine the aging requirement is even longer, with a minimum of 5 years, of which at least 2 in oak, before release.

Italian Wines
In Italy, producers use the term Riserva to designate their better wines. We encounter the term most often with the wines of Tuscany (Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano) and of Piedmont (Barolo and Barbaresco). Similarly, Italian wine law mandates that these wines must be aged for a longer minimum period than non-Riserva wines.

  • Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged a minimum of 27 months before release. There is no stipulation, on how much of this time must be in cask vs. bottle. This varies depending on the philosophy of each producer.
  • Brunello di Montalcino Riserva must be aged for a minimum of 5 years (one more than non-riserva Brunello), of which a minimum of 2 must be in barrel or cask)
  • Vino Nobile de Montepulciano must age a minimum of 3 years (one more than non-riserva) before release
  • Barolo Riserva must have 5 years minimum ageing before release (one year more than the 4 for non-riserva Barolo)
  • Barbaresco Riserva must have a minimum of 4 years ageing before release (one year more than the 3 for non-riserva Barbaresco)

Reserve Wines & Cost
Because they 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. Think about the costs of holding your wine for 4 to 5 years, as well as the considerable extra cellar space required, and it becomes less surprising that some of these wines cost so much.

While these terms are supposed to indicate higher quality, they are not necessarily a guarantee. As ever it come back to knowing the producer, and his/her quality focus. Always ask a knowledgeable sales-assistant before parting with the extra money just because it says ‘reserve’ on the label.

Great Value Reserve Wines
Here are some excellent value reserve wines that I have enjoyed on many occasions. And they won’t break the bank!

2004 Marques de Riscal Reserva, DOC Rioja $14 – Delicious ripe, mature red fruit with hints of spice, clove and balsamic. Smooth and easy drinking.

2003 Bodegas Montecillo Reserva, DOC Rioja $18 – Many layers of ripe, baked red fruits – wild strawberry, loganberry with attractive developed notes of tobacco, roasted meats and earthy notes that add complexity.

2005 Campo Viejo Reserva, DOC Rioja, $13 – Lively, with intense jammy fruit aromas – cherry, blackberry, raspberry with hints of vanilla and coconut. Soft and easy drinking.

2004 Bodegas Glorioso Reserva DOC Rioja, $19 – Nicely layered nose of baked forest fruits, notes of tobacco, clove and earthy hints. Round and smooth on the palate.

2004 Ruffino Riserva Ducale, DOCG Chianti Classico Riserva $24 – Probably the best value Chianti Classico Riserva you can get. I love it. Complex layered nose of sweet and tart cherry, savory notes, earthy notes, strawberry, clove, licorice. Excellent fruit concentration on the palate, refreshing and very long finish.

2004 Val delle Corti, DOCG Chianti Classico Riserva, $30 – Lots of dark red cherry fruit, clove, sweet spices. Good grip to the tannins and refreshing.

2006 Ruffino Santedame DOCG Chianti Classico Riserva, $30 – More modern style, with vanilla, toasty aromas of new oak, which is very well integrated with intense and complex fruit flavors. More black cherry than red, smooth, rich mouth feel.

New World
2007 Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay, South Australia, $13 – A super wine for the price. Elegant with appealing apricot and citrus aromas and well integrated toasty oak. Round, creamy and smooth on the palate but taut and well structured.

2005 Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz, South Australia, $14 – Huge intensity of ripe vibrant plummy, blackberry fruit – spices, pepper, leather. Very smooth.

2008 Kendall Jackson Chardonnay Vintner’s Reserve Reserve, California $14 – Big and bold bursting with ripe tropical fruit aromas and flavors – mango, papaya, pineapple and ruby grapefruit interwoven with creamy vanilla, toast and spice.

2006 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel, California$16 – Upfront vibrant black fruit – plums, prunes, blackberries mingled with hints of spice, tobacco, smoke and tar. Full-bodied.

2006 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve, Oakville AVA, Napa valley, $40 – Expensive, but I included it as, it is a wonderful elegant wine, and worth the treat at least once! – Layered and complex. Aromas and flavors of white flowers, dried herbs and zesty lemons and tangerines, lemon curd. Vibrant, with great length.

See also my post on Bodegas Montecillo, from last year.

Until next week.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.