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Originally published Jan. 26, 2018
By Andy Perdue, former writer of The Grapevine

WHAT DO YOU think when you see the word “reserve” on a bottle of wine? The winemaker — or at least, his or her marketing department — hopes you’ll be impressed enough to purchase it over the regular bottling of the same variety, probably shelling out a premium price. 

Is there a definition of “reserve,” especially now that we see the term used for everything from food products to Budweiser beer? 

Years ago, the Washington State Wine Commission created a group called the Washington Wine Quality Alliance, with one of its goals to define “reserve.” If it had been successful, Washington would have been the only region in the world to have done so (although Italy does define riserva wines by how many months they spend aging in oak barrels). Unfortunately, it never gained traction. 

So what goes into crafting a reserve wine, and are they worth the few extra dollars? I spoke with dozens of winemakers about the process. Nobody follows the same path. Here are a few things that can lead to a reserve designation: 

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• Grapes come from a specific vineyard block. 
• A young wine in the barrel stands out particularly well during cellar evaluations. 
• Promising wines often are aged in oak barrels, usually expensive French oak, as opposed to American oak or stainless steel. 
• Production is limited. Reserve wines are aged longer in the bottle before release, making them more complex. 
• Sometimes, it’s a very deliberate process. Columbia Crest, for example, farms its reserve vineyard separately, crushes the grapes on a separate crush pad using an optical sorter, stores the wine in a reserve area of the cellar (behind velvet ropes), and typically ages it in French oak and concrete eggs. The result of this care is revealed in the bottle. 
• With white wines, particularly chardonnay, “reserve” means pulling out all the stops to create a big, buttery, California-style wine that has seen a lot of oak. 

I find it worth buying a reserve-level wine if I know a winemaker’s style, or if I enjoyed his or her reserve wines in the past. These are fun wines to pull out for special meals with friends, or on special occasions such as holiday meals or anniversaries. 

Anecdotally, I don’t find that reserve wines age any better or longer than other wines. I do find myself disappointed with reserve wines when it seems like the winemaker tried a bit too hard, usually overdoing it on oak or leaving assertive tannins that could have been easily tamed with blending. 

My general rule of thumb is that if I really liked the regular bottling, then the reserve of that wine is going to be special. 

While this doesn’t yet give us a definition, I find reserve wines can be special ones worthy of space in my already-bulging cellar.