I love house wines. They anchor beverage programs at countless restaurants, taking the angst out of choosing what to drink with dinner. They also happened to have been the wallet-friendly fall-back position I relied on in university. These were the days before “Netflix and chill,” when young people on dates actually had the genteel naïveté to sit down to a restaurant dinner before, or in lieu of, jumping into the sack for a hookup.
But house wines are not just for restaurants. They’re for actual houses and apartments, too. Do you have one or two you rely on? A no-brainer selection worth buying by the case?
I put the question to a few sommeliers, chefs and wine dealers, hoping to score valuable insights for the holiday-entertaining season ahead. My main criterion: The wines needed to cost $20 or less. I received a wealth of inspired answers. As I half expected, I also received a couple of polite rejections because my price ceiling was apparently too low. A sommelier who never drinks below $20? That’s not the sort of sommelier I’d trust with my money. But I digress.
What struck me most was the regional diversity of choices, with Spain (predictably) and France (surprisingly) figuring prominently. Also impressive to me was the fact that there was general consensus over what a house wine ought to be: moderate in body and alcohol; food-friendly, with acidity, the better to match with a wide array of dishes; and nothing industrial or jammy-sweet, which can easily get tedious when you’re buying something repeatedly.
I’ll start by putting myself out on a limb. Ascheri Barbera d’Alba 2016 ($14.95 in Ontario) is medium-bodied and brimming with cheerfully juicy red fruit, yet polished enough to impress guests, with nuances of licorice, grilled herbs and underbrush. On the white side, I’ve often relied on Anselmi San Vincenzo ($17.95 in Ontario, on sale for $15.95 until Nov. 11) for consistency and universal appeal. It’s essentially a garganega-based Soave, with dashes of plump chardonnay and zesty sauvignon blanc in varying degrees depending on the vintage.
But enough from me. When Véronique Rivest, owner of Soif Bar à Vin in Gatineau, Que., tips you off on a good red Bordeaux for less than $16, you’d do well to listen. She is one of the top palates in the world, placing second in the 2013 World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Japan, which made her the top-ranking female somm on the planet. Her Bordeaux selection: Château Puy-Landry Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2016 ($15.85 in Quebec). An organically farmed merlot-based blend, it’s “probably one of the very best quality/price ratios at the SAQ [provincial liquor agency],” she says, describing it as medium-bodied, very dry, with ripe fruit and moderate tannins.
Rivest says she became a huge fan of Greek wines after first participating in the world-sommelier competition in 2007, in Rhodes, and one of her go-to favourites is Argyros Atlantis ($19.15 in Quebec). “As I’ve been saying for 10 years, ‘Buy Santorini,’” she enthused, referring to the island famous for superb whites made from the local assyrtiko grape. And because “you always need a bottle of bubbles stashed away,” she suggests Pares Balta Cava Brut from Spain ($16.80 in Quebec), her everyday sparkling wine. It, too, is organic.
Another cava that happens to be one of my long-standing house favourites, Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($15.95 in Ontario, $16.99 in B.C., various prices elsewhere), was nominated by Andrea Vescovi, general manager and wine director at Ancora Waterfront Dining & Patio in Vancouver. “I’ve been drinking it for decades and it’s always excellent,” he says. A more recent discovery, Dialogo Douro, a dry red table wine made by port producer Niepoort in Portugal’s Douro Valley ($17.95 in Ontario, $21.99 in B.C.), was a revelation after he bought it on a whim.
Portugal also excels in much more affordable discoveries, of course, a fact not lost on chef Paul Moran of 1909 Kitchen Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast. His favourite: Gazela Vinho Verde ($9.95 in Ontario, $11.99 in B.C., and various prices elsewhere). “Can’t beat it,” he says of the faintly spritzy white. “Refreshing and easy to drink.” Another noted toque on Vancouver Island, Sam Harris, executive chef at Victoria’s The Courtney Room, recently named one of Air Canada’s top-10 best new restaurants, sticks with local wines from the province for his selections. namely Sumac Ridge Private Reserve Gewurztraminer ($13.99 in B.C.), “great with ceviche or curry,” and Lock and Worth Sauvignon Blanc + Sémillon ($20) from a boutique winery in Penticton (lockandworth.com).
Wine and food pros, perhaps more than the general population, lean heavily toward whites. And riesling may wear the crown as the most flexible variety at the table. So, it’s not surprising that Bryant Mao, wine director at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver, loves a great Australian selection, Pewsey Vale Riesling 2017 ($19.99 in B.C., $19.95 in Ontario, $22.95 in Quebec) from the Eden Valley, totally dry and zestier than grated lemon peel.
At Bar Von Der Fels in Calgary, sommelier-partner Thomas Dahlgren sings the food-friendly praises of organically farmed Azul y Garanza Altamente Monastrell 2017 from the Jumilla region in Spain (various prices in Alberta, $15.35 in Quebec). It’s juicy and soft in tannins, he says, and packed with the sort of character you’d more likely find in something pricier thanks to organic farming, native-yeast fermentation and original vinifera rootstock planted at a cool 900-metres elevation.
In Toronto, Heather McDougall, general manager at Montecito Restaurant in the Entertainment District, calls herself a “wine nerd” but also a “realistic wine drinker.” In other words, value must be a part of the equation even if it takes more effort to get there. It’s why she recently opened an upstairs wine bar at Montecito called By the Glass, which has a fixed markup of just $30 for any bottle, regardless of wholesale price. At home, meanwhile, she contents herself with, among other things, Dopff & Irion Crustaces from Alsace ($15.45 in Ontario), a white sylvaner-pinot blanc blend. “I was absolutely blown away by what’s in the bottle,” she says. “There are now six bottles in the fridge and three cases in the restaurant. … It’s so floral and citrusy and beautifully mineral, crisp and not so dry that it’s painful. Food friendly and wonderful on its own.” And she’s got a red recommendation: Kloof Street from South Africa ($17.25 in Ontario, $21.95 in Quebec), a syrah-led blend that’s medium-bodied, fresh and spicy.
Annette Bruley, manager and wine director at Midfield Wine Bar in Toronto, rose to my price challenge with a widely available white that flies under the radar of most connoisseurs probably because of its big-brand status or, frankly, cheap price. Aveleda Fonte Vinho Verde ($11.45 in Ontario, $10.90 in Quebec, $11.99 in Manitoba). “A simple and straightforward, low-alcohol, effervescent delight with refreshing acidity, ripe apple and citrus and a zesty finish,” she says. “This has been a staple with my friends and me forever. It’s great as an aperitif, a standard at picnics and brunch, and is a great pairing with light fish dishes.” Higher in price and complexity is Terraprima White from Spain ($19.95 in Ontario). It’s an unusual blend of xarello and riesling, with “a touch of herbaceousness, vibrant minerality and mouth-watering salinity,” she says.
Peter Boyd, wine director at Toronto’s iconic Scaramouche restaurant, reminded me of a southern French wine he and I have both regularly purchased over the years for similar reasons. “The most dependable, low-rent red at the LCBO for the last 20 years is the Château de Gourgazaud Minervois,” he told me in a tweet, referring to a southern French blend ($14.05 in Ontario). “Never ethereal, but always reliably chuggable” especially for burgers, ragu and chili con carne, he says.
It’s a reminder that France can still compete strongly with the rest of the world on a price-quality basis, especially if one is willing to venture off the beaten paths of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Catherine Bélanger, owner of top Montreal wine bar Pullman, is not just a connoisseur but also a producer, as co-owner with wine-director husband Frédéric Simon of Pinard et Filles in Magog, Que. The couple produce low-intervention wines and mostly enjoy naturally produced, organic selections. Two they heartily recommend from SAQ stores in Quebec: Domaine de Majas Côtes Catalanes 2017 ($19.80), an organic red from the southern Languedoc-Roussillon; and Jean-Marc Burgaud Beaujolais-Villages Les Vignes de Lantignié 2016 ($19.90). “We used to work a lot with those two producers on the wine list and by the glass at Pullman,” she says. “Their wines are tip-top, big crowd-pleasers and of course amazing for the price.”
And allow me to point out a few other suggestions, offered in some cases by members of the general public and in others by agency representatives who import wines to Canada. Yes, there’s vested interest when it comes to the latter, but at least the wines presumably represent good value next to other selections in their respective agency portfolios. For example: Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio ($19.95; new shipment to be released Nov. 24 in Ontario); Primus The Blend red from Chile ($19.95 in Ontario); Meffre Hommage Côtes du Rhône ($13.95 in Ontario); Thalia red and white from Greece ($10.15 and $10.30 in Ontario, respectively); Mission Hill Five Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($14.99 in B.C., various prices elsewhere); Yalumba Y Series Viognier from Australia ($13.95 in Ontario, various prices elsewhere); Radio Boka Tempranillo from Spain ($11.95 in Ontario, various prices in the West and Atlantic provinces); and Henry of Pelham Baco Noir from Niagara ($15.95 in Ontario).