Selecting an appropriate wine is always tricky – especially if you want to buy wine for a special occasion or as a gift. Red or white, wooded or unwooded, fresh and fruity or big and heavy? You don’t want to poison your partner or client with a dodgy homebrew you found in a corner café. No, you buy the best. You buy the founder’s reserve or the winemaker’s selection. It sounds impressive, but do reserve labels actually mean anything?
Even though Conca’s wine articles are mainly written from a South African perspective, it might be useful to look at a few classic European regions first. Bear in mind that region or origin is very important in Europe, and in most cases the name of the village or commune carries more weight than the name of the producer. The Europeans are pretty descriptive of what farmers and winemakers are allowed to do and what not. If they do not adhere to standards, the wines are labelled as ordinary table wine and do not command the prices of their more prestigious counterparts.
Let’s start with St Emilion in the Bordeaux region in the southwest of France. On top of a few regulations regarding vineyard practices (like what to plant, planting density, and yield per hectare), this region has a board called the Syndicat Viticole that also monitors the quality of the wines, and classifies the vineyards and producers accordingly. This classification is reviewed every 10 years and is not always without controversy. As a matter of fact, the last review in 2006 ended up in the French High Court.
According to this classification system, entry-level wines from this region are labelled as St Emilion Grand Cru (at about R200 per bottle). Wines one level up are called St Emilion Grand Cru Classe (at about R400 per bottle). A selected few of the producers are allowed to label and market their wines as St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe B (at R800+ per bottle), while only two are allowed to label their wines as St Emillion Premier Grand Cru Classe A (at R5000+ per bottle). Compare this to a local Grand Cru at around R30 a bottle…
If we move to La Rioja in the northwest of Spain, we will find a strong focus on the barrel ageing of the wine. Entry-level regional wines with the shortest time in barrel are called La Rioja. Regional wines one level up are called Rioja Crianza, followed by Rioja Riserva. The top wines are labelled Rioja Gran Riserva. Chianti in Italy has its own system. Based mainly on yield per hectare, alcohol level and maturation time in oak barrels, wines are classified as Chianti, Chianti Classico or Chianti Classico Riserva.
Even though the above might seem a bit confusing, I’m sure you get the idea that each region has its own rules and regulations of classifying wine quality and style.
Moving back home, we have a very simple system. You can call it whatever you want. The South African wine industry is very strict in terms of origin and variety, but there is no benchmark for reserve labels. It all boils down to the integrity and ethics of the producer. The vast majority of producers only use reserve labels for their very best wines, but there is no law stopping them from labelling entry-level wines as the winemaker’s choice.
Silly as it may sound, price is always a good indicator. If you’re looking for something special, don’t be surprised if the proprietor’s choice at R35 per bottle is not what you were hoping for. Otherwise, if it is for a special occasion or corporate gift, stick to old faithful and get wine with a good track record.
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