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Kulers Uncorked: Reserve Wines Really?

Gil Kulers, CWE

Gil Kulers, CWE

2009 Cousiño-Macul, Antiguas Reservas, Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile

2009 Cousiño-Macul, Antiguas Reservas, Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile

  • Two Thumbs Way Up
  • $15
  • Powerful and pleasant aromas of plum, blackberry, mocha and eucalyptus. It has clean flavors of dark berry fruit with notes of dark chocolate, mint and a cedar-box quality. It also has plenty of dark spices with a black licorice finish.

Reserve. A potent word, especially when applied to wine.

“Sir, would you like a glass of our regular cabernet sauvignon or the reserve?”

Naturally, you pick the reserve, which conjures up dusty, precious bottles made in limited numbers held a special anteroom of the cellar. These are wines “reserved” for special occasions. In the wine world, reserve means the cream of crop, the ne plus ultra, or the shnizzle, as my pal Snoop Dogg…er Snoop Lion likes to say.

Reserve has a very specific, legal meaning in most European winemaking countries. Typically, winemakers are required to pick riper grapes and make wines with slightly higher alcohol levels. Regulators also mandate lengths of time a reserve wine must age prior to release and how long the wine must remain in barrels. And let’s not even mention terms like gran reserva (great reserve), Spain’s top quality level, which have even higher standards.

Unfortunately, in the United States “reserve” has been rendered toothless by rampant overuse. The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversees labeling regulations for wineries, has no definition for reserve. Winemakers are free to use reserve on their label anyway they like. And they like it a lot.

Probably the biggest transgressor is Kendall-Jackson with its Vintner’s Reserve line. They make about 2 million cases of the chardonnay alone and millions more of their other varieties. The Vintner’s Reserve is an interesting case in that KJ makes other reserve-like labels, like the Jackson Hills, Highland Estates and Stature (their true reserve wine that is the pinnacle of their red winemaking efforts), but they don’t call them reserve. They also make a Grand Reserve line that is one step above their Vintner’s Reserve level. This only serves to make this whole reserve business more obtuse.

This is not an indictment of Kendall-Jackson. Every grape KJ crushes for their Vintner’s Reserve and Grand Reserve programs comes from their own vineyards. They maintain tight control over their grape growing so they can consistently put respectable wines in the bottle, but true reserve wines they ain’t.

American wineries don’t have a stranglehold on the misuse of reserve. One of my favorite non-reserve reserve wines is the Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon from Cousiño-Macul. These Chilean winemakers produce a more pedestrian cabernet, so the Antiguas is a step above. The Antiguas sees French oak for 12 months and is kept in bottle for six months prior to release. That sounds reserve-y, right?

Not quite. The Antiguas Reservas has nothing on Cousiño’s Premium line or its Lota red blend. By the way, Lota is made with highly selected grapes and aged in lots of new, French-oak barrels for 15 months. Only the exceptional barrels are “reserved” for the final blend…kind of the point of a real reserve program.

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.

— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog

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