I know, your image of “house wine” is based on some cheap, anonymous vino served in a carafe and short tumblers at a pizza joint. That’s why you need an update.
At a new generation of restaurants, top wine directors offer more aspirational house wines, working with famed producers to create high-quality cuvées designed especially to go with the restaurant’s food. The French Laundry's wine team collaborates with Napa's Schramsberg Vineyards to create the restaurant's house sparkler, Modicum Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, while Au Bon Climat makes special pinot noir and chardonnay cuvees for Daniel Boulud.
So it’s no longer declassé to order them when dining out, which means it’s not gauche to have them in your home either. In fact, it’s a useful habit, having a go-to red and a white for day-in, day-out drinking, whether relaxed sipping on a deck or with casual meals at home. They’re the vino versions of the basic liquor on your bar. Many of you probably already unconsciously have a house wine, be it a trusty bottle you rely on from your liquor store or a label you buy by the case and keep in the basement.
Not just any wine will work. A house wine has to be something you can pull out and pour without a second thought. Always on the hunt for potential candidates, I look for labels interesting enough to enjoy regularly without getting bored, yet crowd-pleasing enough to open no matter which friends stop by.
Ready-to-drink recent vintages and bright, fresh, lighter wines are preferable to dark, tannic, brooding ones that scream for attention. Luckily, a growing number of top winemakers are thinking along the same lines.
Seasonality counts (don’t you want lighter wines in summer?), and cost is key. House wines should be relatively inexpensive—my rule of thumb is around $20, as the best value wines today are in the $15-$25 range. And they should seriously overdeliver for the price.
Yes, when I find a good one, I buy by the case to take advantage of retailers’ 10 percent to 15 percent case discount. But always try one bottle first.
Here are my current picks.
NV Roederer Estate Brut ($20)
Any time is a good time for decent fizz. Having some on hand means you’re always ready to celebrate. This lively subtle bubbly is consistently fresh and lemony.
2015 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($14)
Long-neglected Muscadet is underappreciated, and this basic one from biblically bearded Muscadet master Marc Ollivier is reliably stunning. Made from organically grown grapes, it’s in the classic crisp style: citrusy, stony, and salty, ideal with oysters, shellfish, and just about anything with fins.
2014 Calera Central Coast Chardonnay ($18-$20)
With subtle savory scents and a suave texture, this medium-bodied, fruity chardonnay has surprising character and elegance for the price. It’s the basic chardonnay from a top winery and a combo of lemon and mineral flavors, with just a hint of oak in the background. It will please lovers of the grape, but not turn off its many haters.
2015 Broglia Gavi La Meirana ($19)
Made from cortese grapes from the oldest vineyard in the Gavi region of northern Italy, this fresh white combines tastes of chalk, green herbs, and citrus. Antipasti, meet your new best friend.
2014 Tendu White Wine ($20)
Star California winemaker-of-the-moment Steve Matthiasson created this fresh, bright, citrusy and herbal blend of vermentino, French colombard, and chardonnay to be, well, a house wine. It’s amazingly versatile with food and comes in a 1-liter bottle sealed with an open-me-now crown cap. This is a perfect summer house white.
2015 Château Pradeaux Le Cotes de Provence Rosé ($21)
The chateau’s everyday rosé, a blend of cinsault and mourvedre, has everything I want in a stylish pink wine–fresh, delicate herb and lavender aromas, juicy berry and mineral flavors, with a light chalky finish. It will add a grace note to all al fresco dining.
2013 Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône Chat Fou ($17)
A super buy from the Rhône Valley, this spicy, licorice-licked red is a lighter, more gulpable version of a berry-tinged Côtes du Rhône and can be served slightly cool. The secret to this wine’s charm? The blend includes 20 percent white Rhône grapes mixed in with 80 percent grenache.
2014 Domaine de Terre Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) Beaujolais L’Ancien Vieilles Vignes ($17)
Beaujolais is a light, all-rounder red that you can drink with a surprising number of foods and can also serve slightly chilled. This one is juicy and vibrant, with subtle spiciness and the taste of berries, bitter cherry, and minerals.
2014 Bebame Red Sierra Foothills 12 percent alcohol ($20-$22)
Lively, refreshing, with bright notes of herbs, this blend of cabernet franc and a dash of gamay is modeled on light reds like Chinon. It’s a project by well-known California winemaker Steve Edmunds for Aha Wines. And it comes in magnums, too.
2014 Paolo Scavino Barbera d’Alba ($20)
Barbera is one of the most versatile grapes in the world. The wines are superb with food because of the grape’s bright acidity, which offers just the right amount of contrast to rich, oily dishes. This midweight example, from a top producer, is wonderfully juicy, with aromas and flavors of cherries, licorice, and herbs.