What does “Reserve” mean and how does it affect the price of the wine? How does the alcohol content affect the wine? What is the difference between neutral oak vs. new oak? How many bubbles are in one bottle of Champagne?
You’ll find all the answers to these questions below.
The “Reserve”, “Special Reserve”, “Private Reserve” or better yet “Grand Reserve” mentions on a wine label is supposedly a wine of greater quality, therefore eligible for a greater price tag. For the most part, the term “reserve” has no real (or legal) meaning in the U.S., and is simply a marketing tool. Some wineries do set aside some of their best stuff, perhaps treat it with more expensive oak, add some gold leafing to the label, and call it reserve (only to charge more).
There are exceptions, particularly in Europe. The term “Reserva” on a bottle from Spain or Portugal, or “Riserva” from Italy, indicates a wine made under a particular set of regulatory parameters, mostly referring to the time it was spent in barrels before release.
Reserve also means something in Washington. In 1999, the Washington Wine Quality Alliance (a voluntary, self-governing group of a couple dozen producers) has declared that the “reserve” should mean something when used on a specific wine. In order for a member winery to utilize this term, the production must only be 10% of the total production, or 3000 cases (whichever is greater). It also has to be a better grape quality than the rest of those in the vineyard.
A Wine Ponder advice: Taste the wine. If you like it, buy a case and make it your own private reserve.
The alcohol content will vary based on the winemaking process, the varietal and the region it is from. Legally, the wine content must be disclosed on the label. For the wines sold in the United States, the percentage of alcohol mentioned on the label is allowed a 1.5% (up or down) margin of error. A wine labelled 13.5% alcohol could be as low as 12% or as high as 15%.
Typical alcohol content of selected wines:
• German Riesling 8-12.5%
• Champagne 12%
• Most white wines 11.5-13.5%
• Most red wines 12-14.5%
• California Cabernet Sauvignon 13-15%
• Sherry 15-22%
• Port 20%
The higher the alcohol content, the more “body” and “weight” the wine usually has. One may guess the approximate alcohol content by swirling the wine around in the glass, and looking at the “legs” as they run down the edge of the glass.
Now, should you buy wine with more or less alcohol? Well, this really depends on your personal tastes. Alcohol in non-fortified wines is very volatile and causes wine to turn more quickly. In some cases, the lower the alcohol level, the longer it will last, like the French wines from Bourgogne. But this isn’t true to all wines. There are a lot of 13%+ wines that last quite a long time, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, alcohol – when consumed in moderation – will increase HDL (good cholesterol) and decrease LDL (bad cholesterol). So based on these facts, I will leave it up to you ;)
During the aging process (also called maturing process), and before being bottled, the wine is carefully kept in “aging barrels” for a certain period of time. The time it stays in the barrel is up the winemaker’s discretion. During that time, small quantities of oxygen will enter the barrel as the wine evaporates. The barrel will be meticulously topped up to prevent significant oxidation, though some wines like Vin Jaune are not.
The fact is that any wine aged in wooden barrels (as opposed to stainless steel) takes on some of the compounds in the barrel, such as vanillin (vanilla flavor) and wood tannins. The presence of these compounds depends on many factors, including the place of origin, fabrication, and the degree of “toast” applied during manufacture. Most wooden barrels are made out of French or American oak, but chestnut and redwood are also used.
The winemaker decides what type of oak to use for any given wine: neutral vs. new.
Neutral oak is the term given to an old barrel that has already been used 3-6 years. There are little to no tannins left in the wood, so the wood’s influence in taste is minimized at this point in the life of a barrel. While these barrels don’t add any flavors, they do soften the wine. N.B.: The term “neutral” may also refer to “stainless steel aging”.
Conversely, new oak barrels give a powerful vanilla flavor, which nicely accents many white and red wines. The various degrees of “toast” (literally charred) imparts smoky or toasty flavors to the wine. A new barrel loses 50% of its characteristics for each year of service.
The aging process may involve both oak types. It is not unusual for winemakers to move the wine from neutral to new oak, hence the percentage information given in the wine notes (i.e. 50% new oak).
Watch a fascinating 2 minute video of a French oak barrel being put together by hand and toasted in a “tonnellerie” (barrel making facility) near the Cognac region.
• A new wooden wine barrel can be as expensive as $2000.
• wines are sometimes flavored by soaking oak chips in them instead of being aged in a barrel.
We all like a little “bubbly” from time to time. There are various degrees of sweetness in Champagne and pleasing everyone’s palate can be difficult. The following chart might help. The sweetness of a sparkling wine or Champagne ranges from:
• Brut Nature : Totally dry (sugar content : 3 g/l*)
• Extra Brut : Very dry (sugar content : 6 g/l*)
• Brut : Dry (sugar content : 12 g/l*)
• Extra Dry : Medium dry (sugar content : 20 g/l*)
• Sec / Dry : Slightly sweet (sugar content : 35 g/l*)
• Demi-Sec : Fairly sweet (sugar content : 50 g/l*)
• Doux : Sweet (sugar content : 50+ g/l*)
* grams per liter
You are now “bubble certified”, and you may enjoy your Champagne based on your own preference. My favorite Champagne is Laurent Perrier. I like its subtile and refined flavors and the carbonation is very thin and wispy. Now you know what to give me for my birthday : )
• A Champagne cork can travel at up to 65 mph upon leaving the neck of the bottle.
• There is enough CO2 (carbonation) inside one bottle to produce 5 million bubbles.