Wine labels contain a myriad of terms meant to aid the consumer in understanding the product better before committing to its purchase.  One of the most misunderstood and controversial terms you may find on a bottle of wine is the word ‘reserve.’  Often assumed to be an indicator that a wine is of superior quality, the term ‘reserve’ is not as cut and dry as you may think.  Let’s shed some light on the reality behind this often misconstrued labelling term.


The Legalities of ‘Reserve’

Some terms printed on a wine label are backed up by legal status and some are not.  If a term is backed up by legislation, the wine must meet criteria enshrined in law in order to use that term, and an independent regulatory body (in Ontario, the Vintners Quality Alliance, or ‘VQA’) must approve the term’s use after strict taste-testing and laboratory examination.  Some terms that are backed up by legal status in Ontario include the word ‘Icewine’ and the term ‘Estate Bottled.’


In Ontario, the term ‘reserve’ has no legal status.  The only wine-producing regions in the world that back up this term in legislation are Spain (‘Reserva’) where the term indicates that the wine has satisfied a minimum requirement for ageing in barrel and in bottle, and Italy (‘Riserva’) where the term indicates a higher alcoholic percentage and an extended period of ageing.


‘Reserve’ Wines in Ontario

In Ontario, because there is no legal backing for the term ‘reserve,’ this word is technically nothing more than a marketing ploy.  Some wineries are using the term in earnest, only placing it on bottles of wine that the winemaker believes to be of superior quality when compared to the other wines he or she has produced.  However, some wineries will use the term to intimate that a wine is of superior quality when in reality there is nothing out of the ordinary about it.  Because wine is a product of a grape harvest and the quality of the harvest will vary from year to year (something we refer to as “vintage variation”) it is not possible for a winery to produce a genuinely superior product every year.  Some years will be exceptional and some years will be average.  It is, of course, up to the skill of the winemaker to do the best he or she can with each harvest to make an exceptional wine, but given that the quality of the harvest will be different every year, the potential for an exceptional wine to be made will vary from year to year as well.


Niagara Wineries Avoiding the Term ‘Reserve’

In recognition that some wine producers are not using the term reserve in earnest, some Niagara wineries have opted to create their own terminology that is unique to their brand when indicating that a wine is of genuine superior quality.  For example, Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake produces its “Exclamation” series of wines only when a vintage is of exceptional quality, and then only from wines that have exceeded expectations after maturation in oak barrels.  Pillitteri’s Exclamation wines are limited edition products and are not produced every year.  By avoiding the word ‘reserve,’ Pillitteri has fostered consumer confidence in the superiority of this line of products.


Final Thoughts

In conclusion, consumers are advised to be wary of the term ‘reserve’ when seen on a bottle of VQA Ontario wine.  Without legal status to back up this term, it does not necessarily indicate that a wine is better than any other.  To learn more about wine, join us on one of our educational wine tours in Niagara Falls.  Contact us at 866-628-5428 for more detail.



Michael Twyman – Sommelier and Niagara Wine Country Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers