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.


Bait and switch: When a wine list becomes irrelevant

Dear sommeliers,

Without you, we wine drinkers are nothing. Trips to restaurants, banquet dinners, sojourns to the private members’ club for a swift one; without a sommelier, we’d all probably be drinking Gallo. So we’re grateful for your expertise.

And grateful we are, too, for your attempts to write long wine lists covering wine possibility and probability. Grateful, because you know we love choice, even if it the dizzying array of options paralyses us.

But can I impart some advice?

We’re less grateful, I’m afraid, for the lack a helpful description of what we’re ordering when we don’t have your assistance at the table. You know, those times when we’re at banquets and someone has thrust the wine list in our hands and all we see – thanks to the fog caused by several previous glasses of wine – is a list of wines but nothing that actually stands out as a winner.

What can we expect from that generic Napa cabernet sauvignon nobody’s ever heard of? Dark fruits and leather or a thin and putrid Northern Californian slurry?

Given the likely mark-up from the retail price (ahem) I’m tending towards the latter rather than the former. But that’s just a guess, since I have nothing to go on.

Less grateful we are, again, when ordering a bottle becomes a game of vintage pot luck.

Oh sommeliers. It isn’t your fault; it’s probably the waiter who was assigned to my table.

I appreciate it isn’t always easy to maintain stock of a single vintage at all times. And sometimes it is necessary to list more than one vintage of the same wine because one is likely to run out. But perhaps if this is the case, laminating the wine list was a bad idea.

The other week at a banquet at the Park Lane Hilton in London it was vintage roulette (or bait and switch) when ordering wine. The offending bottle here was the modest Chateau Lamothe-Cissac Vielles Vignes. The kicker, it was listed as “2004/05”.

Ah, I thought, this will be interesting.

What arrived at the table was a 2002. Given the state of everyone else having dinner that night, I was probably the only one who noticed.