Reserve Wines Score, But at What Price?

Bait and switch, an unsavory tactic in the used-car business, is finding its way into the wine industry. Think of the bait as a New World reserve wine that is produced simply to generate a 90-point-plus score from a top wine critic. Think of the switch as the regular bottling of the same wine, which is more likely to be what’s available to the average consumer.

A reserve wine in the New World typically is a super selection of a winery’s best production, although it can represent the entire output because there is no legal definition of a reserve wine in the United States. They are usually produced in tiny quantities and sometimes are only available at the winery or to the restaurant trade.

Enter bait and switch. A consumer orders a reserve Cabernet with dinner at an upscale restaurant, is wowed by its concentration and extraction, and looks for it at the local retail wine shop. But he is forced to buy the regular bottling, because that’s the only one available in the shop. The regular bottling pales in comparison because removing the best ten percent of the wine for the reserve strips it of flavor and concentration.

Winemakers acknowledge the potential problem. They defend the practice with the claim that skimming off “only” five to ten percent–a typical amount of reserve wine compared to the regular bottling–does not diminish the quality of the normal bottling.

At the same time, they agree that even a one or two percent addition of Petit Verdot or Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon alters the wine significantly. In that context, their argument that “it’s only ten percent” seems hollow. The next time you have the chance to taste a producer’s reserve side by side with the normal bottling, make your own blend by adding back ten percent of the reserve wine to the regular bottling to see what a difference it makes.

I first noticed the phenomenon at a vertical tasting of Pinot Noir from a prominent Oregon producer, who shall remain nameless. Starting with its first vintage, the wines improved dramatically with each successive year, as would be expected from its increasing experience and the increasing age of the vines. Then, after about five vintages, the quality dropped noticeably. That wine was not from a particularly poor vintage in Oregon. Rather, it was the first year they introduced their delicious super reserve bottling. In the process, however, they stripped their regular bottling of its usual excitement.

The cru classé of the Médoc take a different approach, which bears emulating. Instead of skimming the cream from the top and calling it a reserve, the Bordelais remove inferior wine–a third to a half in some years–and bottle it under a second label. Although they sell it at a lower price, they maintain the integrity, and price, of their primary bottling. The increase in quality of Château Léoville Las Cases in the 1980’s and Château Lagrange more recently has been due, in part, to creation and expansion of their second labels.

The Italians have codified reserve wines, which limits, but does not eliminate, potential for abuse. A riserva, although typically selected in the cellar, must be aged longer before release. Knowledgeable consumers realize that there are two styles of Italian wine–a non-riserva, ready-to-drink everyday wine and a riserva, which is a sturdier wine that needs even more bottle aging. Also, many Chianti Classico Riservas, such as Vignamaggio’s Monna Lisa, come from particular sections of the property and are not just a selection of the best barrels in the cellar.

Some forward-thinking Tuscan producers reject the concept of a reserve wine. Paolo di Marchi, owner of Isola and Olena, no longer makes a riserva because he feels that by doing so, he dilutes the quality of his regular Chianti Classico. This philosophy may explain why his regular Chianti Classico is consistently excellent.

While the reserve bandwagon has chiefly been a New World experience (there is even a California winery that produced a Very Special Reserve), wine critic Robert Parker’s influence has caused it to surface in the Rhone Valley as wineries there try to impress him with ever more concentrated wines.

It is ironic that French producers, the champions of “terroir,” embrace the practice. Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers may not label their special wines, but that’s what they are. Twenty years ago there were practically no special cuvées in the Southern Rhône. Now many Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers have not only one, but two special wines. Sensing the commercial value of these bottlings, even Côtes du Rhône producers are starting to bottle special cuvées.

No doubt the producers are motivated to show what exceptional wines they can make with their raw materials. But when I asked one why he made a special bottling, he replied that if Guigal could reap such financial success from his single-vineyard bottlings, why not he.

But what Guigal is doing in Côte Rôtie is fundamentally different. He is bottling wines made from grapes grown in uniquely situated vineyards. As I walked the vineyards with Philippe Guigal, he showed me that the La Mouline vineyard was situated in a unique amphitheater, with a heat-retaining nature that helped ripen the grapes.

Philippe noted that the adjoining vineyard, not even separated by a footpath, which Guigal had acquired with his purchase of two local firms, had excellent exposure and was a wonderful vineyard, “but it is not La Mouline.” Philippe noted that its fruit would not be used to expand La Mouline’s miniscule production.

Guigal’s latest super duper Hermitage bottling, Ex Voto, while not from a single vineyard, comes from his own vineyards–again recently acquired–and is not a selection of the best barrels of his négociant Hermitage. In that regard he is similar to the Burgundian négociant who produces two wines from the same vineyard, one from his own vines and one from purchased fruit.

Not all New World producers embrace the reserve concept. Napa’s Shafer Vineyards traditionally makes its flagship wine, Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, from grapes grown in a distinctive area of the estate, not a selection of the best barrels in the cellar. Its unique profile and power derives from the location of the vines. Some Oregon Pinot Noir producers, such as Bethel Heights, eschew the reserve designation and instead present a plethora of single-vineyard bottlings.

Just because some single-vineyard wines have tiny productions, do not confuse them with “reserve” wines. A single-vineyard wine is created by nature and its limited availability is a function of nature.

Reserve wine is created by man; by a selection in the cellar, at the expense of the other wines. Its scarcity often leads a consumer to settle, unknowingly, for an inferior wine bearing the same name.

December 20, 2005