My hunt for a good house wine

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Never mind the Montrachet, the prewar vintages of Mouton Rothschild or certain colossally priced natural wines, the biggest challenge facing any restaurateur or sommelier aiming to build a world-class wine list is sniffing out great under-the-radar bottles for a song. None more so than the basic white, red and sparkling house cuvées they’ll stake their reputation on.

Sourcing a bottle that is cheap and not so disgusting that it’d be better employed removing congealed Béarnaise from the chef’s station is the restaurant game’s holiest of grails. It’s also the perfect antidote for anyone involved in fine wine who finds themselves detached from the realities of a budget — something that, with the top end of the market in a gold rush and inflation climbing, is easier than ever. Make no mistake, finding good, cheap vino is hard.

The quintessential house wine should be a simple pleasure and a bastion of dependability in the Sturm und Drang of restaurant service. The white and sparkling must be crisp, clean and refreshing with texture and persistence; the red full of pure, juicy fruit with supple tannins. Nothing too challenging, too alcoholic or too sweet. It must be characterful and not prone to faults.

Many top UK restaurants serve house wines in 125ml measures, six glasses from a 750ml bottle, while the potentially wasteful 175ml and unwieldy 250ml “trucker pour” are more common in pubs. However, wines served from kegs or boxes were already gaining popularity for their ease of use and cost long before the post-lockdown shortages of glass bottles. Likewise, screw caps at low prices have become widespread.

At Noble Rot restaurants our criteria for a still house wine are that it tastes of what it is made of, is something we’d happily drink with pals and costs around £6.20 a bottle (so, after adding the industry standard 70 per cent profit margin for this category plus VAT, it ends up at £25 on our list). Not too much to ask, you might think, until you taste the oceans of hatefulness that dominate that price point. Sure, nearly all of us have caught “holiday wine-itis” at one time or another. You chance upon a taverna supplied by a semi-professional local who approaches winemaking like their grandparents (fermentations from wild yeasts, never filtering) and gets incredible results. But this kind of rustic yet flavoursome wine is rare. The brutal industrial practices that enable most commercial wines to arrive swiftly and consistently in the market don’t make any such concessions for taste.

Wine quality is hugely affected by farming and the size of production. It becomes thinner over certain yields; fine wines range from 20 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) to 50hl/ha, while many supermarket specials rise to 150hl/ha. The latter grapes are often grown on chemic­ally treat­ed, poorly appointed plains, rather than benevolent organic slopes.

Acidity, powdered tannins, enzymes and colour are routinely added by commercial producers keen to remedy their crop’s deficiencies while turning a tight margin. This, combined with the rise in average growing temperatures over recent years, means more technically sound wine is made today than ever before. The trouble is that much of it tastes similarly lifeless, no matter where in the world it comes from.

If typicity and local traditions are all part of what makes wine culture so endlessly fascinating, it’s gratifying to see top artisanal producers such as Sandhi, which makes a house Santa Barbara Chardonnay for San Francisco’s Zuni Café, collaborating at the lower end of the market. After opening our first restaurant in 2015, we began looking for a partner to make a house white. I contacted Telmo Rodríguez, Spain’s greatest large-scale artisanal winemaker, to ask if he’d create something for us at the £1-a-bottle ex-cellar price then common for the category. “My god, Dan! I don’t know how to do a wine for that!” he replied. Indeed, sometimes it seems only a miracle worker could fashion anything respectable with land, labour, packaging, storage, transport costs — and profit — factored into the price. 

Widening our search to Düssel­dorf’s huge Prowein trade fair, we met Antonio Monteiro of northern Portugal’s Quinta Do Ermizio and began collaborating on a Vinho Verde. Branding it Chin Chin and commissioning Noble Rot magazine illustrator Jose Mendez to create the label, we’ve lost count of the times it’s been erroneously name-checked as a natural wine because of its vibrant aesthetics. It became our house white and that of several other restaurants, including Brat and Ikoyi, whose lists we manage. During lockdown it became popular among people looking to recreate the flourishes of restaurant dining at home. But while Chin Chin’s packaging breaks down barriers for drinkers beginning to explore wine, it’s the crisp, pure flavours and moderate 11.5 per cent alcohol that make it a crowd pleaser.

It’s been fascinating to sample the great and the good of the British restaurant scene’s house wines. While many are excellent, I was surprised that some restaurants’ choices lack the ambition of their food. For example, a Californian restaurant collaborating on a house Pinot Noir would make perfect sense, but as a burgundy lover I’m not sure I’d ever cast this famously pernickety and expensive grape in such a basic role in the UK. This was brought home by the Michelin-starred restaurant The Man Behind the Curtain’s 2016 Elgin Ridge 282, a dull-fruited South African Pinot Noir whose tinny finish was the vinous equivalent of a battered Reliant Robin, as opposed to the Citroën DS21-like finesse of top Chambolle-Musigny.

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ 2017 Zweigelt Weingut Umathum from Burgenland has plump, attractive fruit but finishes a little abruptly, while natural wine mecca Brawn’s lively 2019 Les Vignerons d’Estézargues Côtes du Rhône Rouge is a great fit with the restaurant and perfect with charcuterie. Top marks go to The River Café’s structured 2018 Roma Rosso Principe Pallavicini, Core’s harmonious 2020 Domaine du Coulet Côtes du Rhône “Petit Ours” and Les 110 Taillevent’s 2016 François Villard “L’Appel des Sereines”, a savoury Syrah with more complexity than most, even if the oak feels a little clunky (but, hey, it’s six quid a glass, so pour me another).

The best whites likewise major on simple drinkability. Osip’s 2019 Fabrizio Vella, Bianco Organico is a natural Catarratto from Sicily that is accomplished enough to appeal to a broad range of the Somerset establishment’s drinkers, while Hawksmoor’s bright, saline 2021 Cave de l’Ormarine, Picpoul de Pinet is typical of the appellation and a canny fit for the restaurant, where it’s employed as a friendly session wine. My favourite house wine is Moor Hall’s 2018 Arndorfer Weinbergweg, a slightly cloudy natural Austrian Grüner with a lifted perfume and crisp, precise lines on the palate. While it may not appeal to those accustomed to the generic taste of commercial wine, it’s a fine example of a restaurateur ambitiously pushing their wine list to be as flavoursome as it can be.

Best in glass

Eight top-rated house wines on the lists at UK restaurants

  • 2018 Arndorfer Weinbergweg,
    Gruner Handcrafted, Austria (Moor Hall, £11 per glass)

  • 2016 François Villard ‘L’Appel des Sereines’
    Vin de France (Les 110 Taillevent, £6 per 125ml glass)

  • 2021 Cave de l’Ormarine,
    Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc-Roussillon (Hawksmoor, £9 per 175ml glass)

  • 2019 Les Vignerons d’Estézargues Côtes du Rhone Rouge
    (Brawn, £6 per 125ml glass)

  • 2018 Roma Rosso, Principe Pallavicini
    (The River Café, £11 per glass)

  • 2020 Matthieu Barret/Domaine du Coulet, Côtes du Rhône ‘Petit Ours’
    (Core, £11 per 125ml glass)

  • 2021 Principiano Dosset
    (Lyles, £8 per 125ml glass)

  • 2020 Sentidino Bodegas Gallegas Albarino,
    Rias Baixas, Galicia (Trivet, £8 per 125ml glass)

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com

Dan Keeling is the editor of Noble Rot magazine (@noblerotmag) and co-founder of Noble Rot restaurants.

Jancis Robinson is away. More columns at ft.com/jancis-robinson

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