Savvy wine drinkers know that words such as "reserve" and "old vines" mean something only in places where regulations define them. That's pretty much Europe, where the rules often require wineries to use riper grapes and age them longer to use "reserve" on the label, and specify minimum vine age for "old vines."
Not so in Australia, or the U.S. This has led one wine company to issue its own definitions unilaterally and promise to adhere to them. Yalumba, a substantial family-owned winery in Barossa, spelled out what it means by "old vines" in a letter to the media and the trade earlier this year. More recently, it added a second letter defining "reserve."
It turns out that proprietor Robert Hill Smith and winemaker Brian Walsh qualify as strict constructionists on these topics. Of course, they can afford to be. They own vineyards that date from the 19th century. That pretty much trumps anything in Europe or California, both of which replanted virtually all of their vineyards due to phylloxera in the late 19th century. South Australia, whence come most of the best wines in the country, did not.
Old Vines on a Yalumba label means they are at least 35 years old. That pretty much follows the standards used in Burgundy and elsewhere in France and Italy. The winery goes on to call vines 70 years old "antique" and 100-year-old vines "centenary." A few years ago, the winery started labeling a Grenache made from some of its 19th-century vines as "Tri-Centenary Vines." So, in a gentle thumbing of the nose at those who don't have such resources, they have defined the term as "Very, bloody exceptionally old vines who life has spanned three centuries."
"Reserve" makes trickier demands for a definition. Yalumba decided that the term suggests high winemaking standards and extra maturity, and implies relatively limited quantity and aging potential. So the winery has announced that, starting with the 2007 vintage, its reserves will:
• Only use Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling from historic vineyards farmed sustainably, with balanced yields and in years in which the grapes achieve physiological ripeness, vinified using traditional practices and with complete records to prove it.
• Aged on the estate in quantities limited at the outset and assessed as superior by an independent tasting panel. (Interestingly, nothing is said about longer aging than other wines.)
• A money-back guarantee for the life of the wine's optimal drinking period.
"We know from conversations over the years with our peers that we at Yalumba are not the only Australian winemakers who feel that the excessive or indiscriminate use of Reserve has undermined is 'specialness,' leading to a loss of both credibility and value, while causing confusion in the minds of wine consumers," Hill Smith wrote in his paper on the subject.
"We're not finger-pointing here," he added, "just stating the bleeding obvious."
Maybe so, but I don't expect the rest of the industry to jostle each other getting in line behind these definitions or that guarantee. For my part, I applaud Yalumba's willingness to stake out the high ground and stick to it.