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What Does “Reserve” Mean in Wine?

In our article on what “vintage” means, we talked about how certain conditions —moderate temperatures, the right amount of rain at the right time, good soil, and a skilled producer—can come together to produce rare and top-class wines. Good wines come from good producers regardless of the year, but once a decade or so, good producers yield the perfect grapes for a premium vintage.

Collectors keep an eye out for the conditions that produce excellent grapes. The year 1998, for instance, was an exceptional year for Australian wine. For Napa, 2018 was a mild summer with a moderately warm start to fall—the conditions that collectors know to look for. Napa had a string of incredible harvests in the last decade, which is why wines produced here in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018 are already on collectors’ “must-have” lists. As of this writing, 2019 is shaping up to be an incredible vintage as well.

Now, imagine you’re a vintner, and you’ve just made perhaps some of the best wine of your career—the kind of wine that vintners might produce a handful of times in their lifetime. Do you release it all at once?

For many winemakers, the answer is no. Winemakers will often “reserve” or hold back some of their best wine to release it later or age it a little longer. It’s not always due to vintage, either. A winemaker might reserve wine from a specific bloc of vines or wine aged in a particular kind of barrel. These “reserve” wines would be aged longer to be sold later and packaged to say, “this wine is especially worth having.” That’s why reserve wines, as a years-long investment on the part of the winemaker, are typically more expensive.

So Is Reserve Wine Worth Paying Extra For?

Well, it depends. The word “reserve” has roots in the rich tradition and history of winemaking. Still, today, the “reserve” label doesn’t have any concrete meaning—at least not in the U.S. Spain and Italy are the only places in the world where a wine labeled “reserve” is actually regulated and has a specific meaning.

In Spain, “Reserva” wines are aged for at least three years with a minimum of six months aging in oak barrels. In Italy, different wine regions have definitions of “riserva” wines. For most wines, a riserva label will require at least two years of aging, with some wines requiring four or five years of aging before earning the label.

In both Spain and Italy, the government regulates and enforces the labeling of reserve wines, giving buyers confidence that they’re getting a truly premium product.

However, as far as the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and other winemaking countries are concerned, the word “reserve” is just a marketing label. Some winemakers do set aside their best wine and sell it as a higher-end product, but due to the lack of standards or industry-wide practices, there’s no way for buyers to know which reserve wines are legitimate and which are simply marked up.

The Personal Approach to Finding Premium Wines

As a connoisseur, you’re not entirely without hope. While the label itself may not mean much, wine collectors can still find and hunt down exceptional wines the old-fashioned way: by tasting wine and identifying excellent producers. Part of the wine journey is getting to know the producers: their practices, history, and style.

Once you have a group of producers you know and trust, if they release an exceptional wine, then you can take them at their word. There’s no guesswork because you already know and trust the quality of their wine.

Why Producers Like Us Matter

Small producers like Theorem Vineyards live or die by the strength of our wine, not our marketing. Our guests and patrons are not only intimately familiar with our process but through tours and visits, they’re familiar with the very soil that produces our grapes. For us, the rich traditions and history of winemaking are still very much alive, regardless of how the word “reserve” might be used. When we say a wine is a rare vintage (like the wines we produced during the 2018 Napa growing season), patrons can trust it.

That’s what makes producing and buying wine a rewarding experience: wine is a dynamic, living experience. No two varietals, years, or bottles are the same, making it deeply satisfying to find an exceptional vintage. We do our best to honor your search with world-class wine you’ll enjoy for years.

Visit our Shop to take a closer look at the vintages and varietals we’ve produced from the 2018 harvest.