Burgundy - a generic red wine, often served from boxes or jugs; Chablis – a generic white wine, often served from boxes or jugs; Champagne - a sparkling wine, associated only with toasts at weddings, New Year’s Eve and wicked hangovers – right?. Unfortunately these names of esteemed wine growing regions have taken on a life of their own and their actual meanings have been all but forgotten.
Don’t look for Burgundy and Chablis in the bulk wine aisle. Instead look in the French wine section for some of the finest examples of Pinot Noir coming from Burgundy and elegant, minerally Chardonnays coming from Chablis. Granted I think the vintners of Champagne have gone a bit too far with their countless lawsuits against wineries the world over, but at its heart I do support their claim that only they should be allowed to call their wines Champagne. I’m sure that the winemakers of Burgundy, Chablis, and Champagne would love to remove the association their regions have had with low-quality plonk since EJ Gallo first made a Hearty Red Burgundy.
These are not the only terms to fall victim to the American marketing machine. Reserve is a term given to a specific wine to imply that is of a higher quality than usual, or a wine that has been aged before being sold, or both, or at least that is what it traditionally meant. In parts of Europe the term reserve/reserva/riserva actually still holds water, due in large part to the governmental restrictions associated with the term.
In America there is no such restriction, and therefore every label of KJ Chard is labeled as “Vintners Reserve,” a wine obviously extremely special as exemplified by its ubiquitous presence at the end-cap of every other aisle in your liquor superstore. Kendall Jackson actually had to adopt the term “Grand Reserve” to indicate a true reserve wine.
Old Vines is another term that holds little to no weight. It is commonly associated with vines older than forty years, but since there is no legal definition I could easily label a wines as “old vines” when in fact the vines were a mere ten years old, or I could use the term to indicate a certain characteristic of the wine. The same is true in France where “vieilles vignes” has no legally agreed upon definition, or even any generally agreed upon definition.
How can you tell if you should pay extra for that bottle of “reserve” wine? In Spain, Italy and Portugal there are specific laws governing the use of the term on wine labels, so you know there is something different about the reserve bottle versus the regular bottling. In the US, generally, the more reputable the producer, the more likely the term “reserve” has a genuine meaning. You can also look for regular bottling of the same wine. If there are two different bottlings, it’s likely that there is something special about your reserve wine.
Marketing is marketing, and wineries will always be trying to sell you something. With a little knowledge on your part, you can make sure they’re not selling you a load of bull.