‘Reserve’ judgment: the meaningless word on a wine label

What is meant by “reserve” on a wine label? Does it have any legal meaning?
A.H., Five Dock, NSW

Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

It’s understandable that people are puzzled by this word, given that we regularly see bottles, with prices ranging from $20 to $200-plus, on the bottle-shop shelf labelled “Reserve”. I’ve tasted Reserve wines priced as low as $15. If you assumed such wines were of especially high quality, you’d be mistaken.

Sadly, there’s no law relating to the use of this word, just as there are no rules around the use of “single vineyard”, “special bin”, “family selection”, “old vines” and many other fashionable phrases that regularly embellish wine labels. Similarly with lobster as a claimed ingredient in cat food.

It’s not so long ago that wineries like Seppelt and Penfolds sold Royal Reserve brands of sherry and port at the bottom end of the market. Did anyone really believe they were reserved for royals?

“Reserve” is a globally recognised description on wine labels. The French say vin de réserve, réserve personnel, réserve de la famille, or réserve particulière; the Spanish reserva and the Italians riserva.

At least the Italians have legislation that governs the use of riserva. In barolo, for instance, it means the wine has spent extra time maturing, first in the barrel and then in the bottle, before sale and is deemed to be of a higher quality than standard barolo. The question is, why has the word “reserve” been so debased in Australia?

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The Jacob’s Creek Reserve range is priced in the mid to high teens. I once asked a marketer why they use the word “reserve” on such low-priced bottles, and the reply was that their agents in various countries asked for it. They calculated there was a market for a “reserve”-branded version of the familiar varietals, sold at a slightly higher price.

Some wineries seem to use the term relatively. Berton Vineyard Reserve wines cost between $15 and $20, not a lot of money, but certainly a fancier price than its Head Over Heels wines at $8. Wyndham Estate used to have a Personal Reserve range. I always worried that proprietor Brian McGuigan must be running out of cash if he was being forced to sell off his personal cellar. Silly me.

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