What does the term "reserve" mean--other than a higher price?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Could you please explain the term "reserve" when added to a wine label? It seems to add to the price of the wine but doesn't always mean the wine tastes better to me.

—Bud F., Westlake Village, Calif.

Dear Bud,

For the most part, the term "reserve" has no real (or legal) meaning in the U.S., and is simply a marketing tool. Some wineries do set aside some of their best stuff, perhaps treat it with more expensive oak, add some gold leafing to the label, and call it reserve (and charge more). Other wineries put the word on every single thing they make. Wine consumers, they figure, are suckers.

There are exceptions, particularly in Europe. The term "Reserva" on a bottle from Spain or Portugal, or "Riserva" from Italy, indicates a wine made under a particular set of regulatory parameters, mostly referring to the time it was spent in barrels before release.

And the Washington Wine Quality Alliance (a voluntary, self-governing group of a couple dozen producers) has declared that "reserve" has to mean something. In order for a member winery to call a wine "reserve," it means only 3,000 cases or 10 percent (whichever is greater) of a winery's production can be labeled as such. These wines must be designated by the winemaker as higher quality (and higher priced).

—Dr. Vinny

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