House wine: Sometimes you just want to drink the cheap stuff

After spending a week in the scorching 35C heat that is typical of Rome in late June, I came to the realisation there is no such thing as wine snobbery when all you want is something cold, wet and refreshing.

When you’ve spent all morning schlepping around the Roman Fora, up and down the Colosseum, then shuffling through various other museums, come lunch time it doesn’t matter how fine or special that wine be when you plan to quaff it without any consideration for however complex it might be.

Normally I would shy away from ordering the house wine willy nilly at an unknown restaurant. And there are many more places I eat and drink regularly where I still won’t touch their cheap stuff. This is status quo here in the UK, where we expect the cheap wine on a restaurant’s list to be absolutely dire so order something from the middle of the list instead.

While there are exceptions to this rule, the number of you nodding your heads as you read this only confirm my point. My argument is only strengthened by the fact Decanter magazine ran an entire feature article this month on how to choose wine wisely – because we’ve all grown tired of being bamboozled once the cork is popped.

But in Rome, none of this seemed to matter. Whether I was buying by the bottle or the carafe, the cheap stuff or the ‘expensive’ stuff, not once did I whince after tasting a house wine, particularly when it was of the white variety.

This is down to two things. Either a) the wine at these Roman restaurants is of general higher quality than you find in your average establishment here in the UK, or b) it was so hot I simply didn’t care or notice what the wine was like as long as it was cold and refreshing.

Whether I was drinking Orvieto, Frascati, a suspiciously cheap and light Trebbiano from a one-litre bottle that surprised me and didn’t taste anything like paint thinner as I had anticipated, it seemed Rome’s restaurants were much better at executing cheap wine than the UK’s.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for this. Understanding Italy’s Byzantine wine universe is no small feat. Those of you who find French wine confusing enough have no chance when it comes to Italy. Whether you’re trying to make sense of Piedmont, Tuscany or Veneto, something new always enters the fray to muddy the waters.

Think you know exactly what is in your Barolo? Think again. The introduction of French grapes to a country with more great native grapes than it could ever need means what you think is being made from nebbiolo might, in fact, contain a little of something else.

Perhaps because of the utter confusion Italy’s wines cause the rest of us, its restaurateurs feel obliged to lend us a hand and provide us with something serviceable from all corners of their wine lists.

Of course, I have serious doubts about that last bit.

We shouldn’t have to feel like cheapskates when ordering house wine. When all we want is a decent glass of wine at a low price, why should we feel guilt for taking the affordable route? If only bars and restaurants would put some thought into this and stop serving us the worst chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or merlot they can find.