My search for a good house wine

No matter Montrachet, pre-war vintages of Mouton Rothschild, or some colossally priced natural wines, the biggest challenge facing any restaurateur or sommelier aiming to build a world-class wine list is sniffing out big bottles. under the radar for a song. Nothing more than the basic white, red and sparkling house cuvées on which they will stake their reputation.

Finding a bottle that’s cheap and not so disgusting that it would be best to take the frozen bearnaise off the chef’s station is the restaurant’s holiest grail. 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 high end of the market in the midst of a gold rush and inflation in rise, is easier than ever. Don’t get me wrong, good cheap wine is hard to find.

The quintessential house wine should be a simple pleasure and a bastion of reliability in the Sturm und Drang of food service. White and sparkling should be crisp, clean and refreshing with texture and persistence; the red full of pure, juicy fruit with soft tannins. Nothing too difficult, too alcoholic or too sweet. He must be of character and not subject to faults.

Many top UK restaurants serve house wines in measures of 125ml, six glasses from a 750ml bottle, while potentially unnecessary 175ml and bulky 250ml ‘trucker’ are more common in pubs . However, wines served from barrels or boxes were already gaining popularity for their ease of use and cost long before the post-lockdown glass bottle shortages. Similarly, cheap screw caps have become widespread.

At Noble Rot restaurants our criteria for a still house wine is that it tastes like what it is made from, it is something we will happily drink with friends and costs around £6.20 a bottle (so after adding the industry standard 70% profit margin for this category plus VAT, it ends up at £25 on our list). Not asking too much, you might think, until you taste the oceans of hate that dominate this award. Of course, almost all of us have grabbed a “holiday wine tea” at one time or another. You come across a tavern provided by a semi-professional local who approaches winemaking like their grandparents (wild yeast fermentations, never filtered) and achieves incredible results. But this kind of rustic and tasty wine is rare. The brutal industrial practices that allow most commercial wines to hit the market quickly and steadily make no such concessions to taste.

The quality of the wine is strongly influenced by the agriculture and the size of the production. It thins out beyond certain yields; fine wines range from 20 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) to 50 hl/ha, while many supermarket specialties go up to 150 hl/ha. These latter varieties are often grown on chemically treated and poorly managed plains, rather than on benevolent organic slopes.

Acidity, powdered tannins, enzymes and color are regularly added by commercial growers keen to address deficiencies in their crop while still making a tight margin. This, combined with the increase in average growing temperatures in recent years, means that technically stronger wine is being produced today than ever before. The problem is that much of it tastes the same lifeless no matter where in the world it comes from.

While local typicity and traditions are part of what makes wine culture so endlessly fascinating, it’s gratifying to see top artisan producers such as Sandhi, who crafts an in-house Santa Barbara Chardonnay for San Francisco’s Zuni Café, collaborate at the lower end of the market. After opening our first restaurant in 2015, we started looking for a partner to do a white house. I contacted Telmo Rodríguez, the largest large-scale artisanal winemaker in Spain, to ask if he would create something for us at the ex-cellar price of £1 a bottle, then common for the category. “My god, Dan! I don’t know how to make a wine for that! he has answered. Indeed, sometimes it seems like only a miracle worker can make something respectable with land, labor, packaging, storage, transportation costs – and profit – factored into the price.

Expanding our search to the huge Prowein fair in Düsseldorf, we met Antonio Monteiro of Quinta Do Ermizio in northern Portugal and began collaborating on a Vinho Verde. By calling it Chin Chin and commissioning Noble Rot magazine illustrator Jose Mendez to create the label, we’ve lost count of the times its name has been mistakenly verified as a natural wine due to its aesthetics. vibrant. It has become our white house and that of several other restaurants, including Brat and Ikoyi, whose listings we manage. During lockdown, it has become popular among people looking to recreate restaurant frills at home. But while Chin Chin’s packaging breaks down barriers for drinkers beginning to explore wine, it’s the clean, pure flavors and moderate 11.5% alcohol content that make it a crowd pleaser.

It has been fascinating to sample the great and fine house wines of the UK food scene. While many are excellent, I was surprised that some restaurants’ choices lacked the ambition of their food. For example, a Californian restaurant collaborating on a Pinot Noir house would make perfect sense, but as a lover of Burgundy, I’m not sure I’ve ever cast this notoriously picky and expensive grape into such a fundamental role in the UK. United. This was brought home by Michelin-starred restaurant The Man Behind the Curtain’s 2016 Elgin Ridge 282, a dull-fruited South African Pinot Noir whose metallic finish was the vinous equivalent of a beaten Reliant Robin, as opposed to the Citroën DS21-like finesse of high Chambolle-Musigny.

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons du Burgenland’s 2017 Zweigelt Weingut Umathum has plump, attractive fruit but ends a bit abruptly, while the natural wine mecca Les Vignerons d’Estézargues Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2019 Brawn-driven pair perfectly with the restaurant and are perfect with charcuterie. Top marks go to the structured Roma Rosso Principe Pallavicini 2018 from The River Café, the harmonious Domaine du Coulet Côtes du Rhône “Petit Ours” 2020 from Core and the François Villard “L’Appel des Sereines” 2016 from Les 110 Taillevent, a flavorful syrah with more complexity than most. , although the oak looks a little clunky (but hey, it’s six pounds a glass, so pour me another one).

The best whites also focus on simple drinkability. Osip’s 2019 Fabrizio Vella, Bianco Organico is a natural Catarratto from Sicily that’s accomplished enough to appeal to a wide range of drinkers at the Somerset establishment, while the bright and saline 2021 Cave de l’Ormarine from Hawksmoor, Picpoul de Pinet is typical of the appellation and a sensible fit for the restaurant, where it is used as a convivial session wine. My favorite house wine is Moor Hall’s 2018 Arndorfer Weinbergweg, a slightly hazy natural Austrian Grüner with a lifted fragrance and clean, precise lines on the palate. While it may not appeal to those used to the generic taste of commercial wine, it is a fine example of a restaurateur pushing their wine list with ambition to make it as tasty as possible.

Best in glass

Eight highest-rated house wines on UK restaurant lists

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

  • 2016 François Villard ‘The Call of the Sereines’
    Vin de France (Les 110 Taillevent, £6 for a 125ml glass)

  • 2021 Ormarine Cellar,
    Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc-Roussillon (Hawksmoor, £9 for a 175ml glass)

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting notes on the Violet Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More resellers of Wine-searcher.com

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

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

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