Two weeks ago I posted a piece to BTYH about the lack of official regulation of such terms as “reserve,” “private reserve,” “special selection” and so on, label distinctions that imply that a wine is better than its “regular” stablemate from the same winery but are seldom specific as to the details. Consumers need more information than merely the word “reserve” (or whatever variation) on a label to help in choosing a wine at a retail store or restaurant, especially since high-minded phrases like these frequently show up on cheap wines.

So today, I launch a series of posts that will compare regular bottlings of California wines with their “reserve” counterparts, classic_merlot_big.jpg starting with a pretty basic and well-known pair of wines, the Clos du Bois Merlot and Reserve Merlot, both from the excellent 2004 vintage. Winemaker for these wines was Erik Olsen.

The Clos du Bois Merlot for 2004 carries a North Coast designation. The sketchy information on the bottle’s back label doesn’t explain where the grapes come from, but the winery’s website tells us that 71 percent of the fruit derives from Sonoma County, with the rest coming from Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The blend of grapes on this wine is 90 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent “other,” which could imply cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot or, you know, anything else. Clos du Bois produced 345,000 cases of this wine, or 4,140,000 bottles, which is why the wine is ubiquitous on wine lists in the country’s mid-level steak houses and bistro style restaurants, especially in wine-by-the-glass programs. (Yes, the label pictured here, taken from the winery’s website, indicates a Sonoma County designation, but it’s really North Coast.)

What’s it like? Solid, firm, well-knit, offering cherry-berry scents with touches of smoke and spice. (The wine ages 13 months in French, Eastern European and American oak, 20 percent new.) In the mouth, flavors of black currant and black cherry are permeated by polished oak and grainy tannins that bring in elements of briers, brambles and underbrush to dominate the finish. In other words: A nice wine, and I’ll rate it Very Good. On the other hand, I think a suggested retail price of $18 is a bit beyond the pale, and indeed you find the wine discounted to $14 or $15 all over the place. Drink now through 2008 or ’09.

The Clos du Bois Reserve Merlot 2004, Alexander Valley, announces its special nature first by its more artsy label, by (of course) res_merlot_big.jpg the term “reserve,” used twice, and by the definite appellation, Alexander Valley, which lies within Sonoma County. The make-up of the wine is 91 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent malbec. It aged in wood longer than its North Coast cousin, 21 months opposed to 13 months, and in all French oak (half new), the most expensive barrels in the winemaking realm. Clos du Bois produced 13,500 cases of this reserve wine. These details don’t appear on the back label, which merely delivers a rather ecstatic description of the wine’s character.

And what is that character? The immediate impression is of a cool minerally bouquet that gradually unfolds ripe black currant and black cherry scents suffused by dried spice and potpourri. The wine’s texture is like dusty velvet infused with minerals; flavors of currants, cherries and plums offer hints of lead pencil, lavender, bitter chocolate and mocha, all of this enveloped in spicy oak and chewy, grainy tannins. Obviously, this “reserve” wine displays more dimension and detail than its stablemate, and in this sense, I think, justifies its heightened status. On the other hand, simply as a wine fashioned to exist at the reserve level, I see little justification for it, rating it Very Good+ and wishing I could bump it up to Excellent, but the real depth of character is not there. I can see ordering a glass of this wine in a restaurant to accompany a hanger steak and frites or pork loin or similar hearty fare, but it’s not a wine I would stock up on, even at the suggested price, which is $23. Best for consumption from now through 2010 or ’11.