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What it means when a wine label says ‘reserve’

Whether it means extra aging or nothing at all depends on where the wine comes from.

In some parts of the world, the term 'reserve' (or 'riserva') means wine was aged for a longer time.
In some parts of the world, the term 'reserve' (or 'riserva') means wine was aged for a longer time.Read moreANDRIY PETRYNA / Getty Images/iStockphoto

On wine labels, the word “reserve” is supposed to be a quality indicator, but whether it has actual significance depends on where the wine comes from.

The aspirational meaning for the term “reserve” originated with products that can be improved with maturation (such as wines, spirits, and cheeses), where holding back a top-notch batch for extra aging could increase its value. But since producers were the ones determining which of their own batches were superior, the term was quickly abused and devalued.

When wine-labeling laws were established in the 20th century, Italy and Spain chose to regulate the term “reserve” to restore consumer confidence, but other countries did not. As a result, the word “riserva” on an Italian Chianti or “reserva” on a Spanish Rioja guarantees that these wines have been aged longer than average in oak barrels, a process that concentrates the wine and can add a cognac-like oaky flavor as well.

However, in other countries, including the U.S., the word reserve has no legal meaning and is indeed frequently used for bargain wines that may have seen no aging at all.

In an effort to improve its reputation, Argentina now enforces similar rules to those used in Spain for the terms “reserva” and “gran reserva.” This lovely malbec makes a perfect example, having been aged a minimum of two years before release from the winery. This maturation concentrates the wine’s rich flavors of blueberries and roasted beets, and adds an appealing veneer of barrel spice aromatics like vanilla and toasted almond.

Bodega Norton Malbec “Reserva” — Mendoza, Argentina (14.5% ABV)

On sale for $15.99 through Jan. 5 (regularly $18.99); PLCB Item #7019

Also available at: Joe Canal’s in Marlton, N.J., for $12.09; Total Wine & More in Wilmington and Claymont, Del., for $13.97; Kreston Wine & Spirits in Wilmington, for $13.99; Wine Warehouse in Sicklerville, N.J., for $14.99.