Home   Whats On   Article

Subscribe Now

Jake Bennett-Day, director of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds, asks the question: What is house wine?

Well, it depends whose house you’re in. But generally, ‘house wine’ is the most inexpensive offering available in a restaurant or bar offered by the glass, and there is usually a white and a red option. The quality of the restaurant will undoubtedly be reflected in how much time and effort is put in to sourcing this entry-level wine. A little like the soup du jour, if it’s leek & potato, I’ll probably look elsewhere on the menu. But if it’s Bouillabaisse. . . I’ll order two portions please garçon, a loaf of bread, and even ask for the quiet table at the back so that I may overindulge in privacy.

I think this sentiment translates nicely to what I feel a house wine should be. There is an unfortunate notion that house wine is bottom of the barrel, anonymous, bland juice to be avoided in favour of the second cheapest offering. Rubbish! Any restaurateur, sommelier or otherwise-titled wine buyer worth their salary should understand the importance of this listing, and as such spend some time finding a wine so good, it should offer the best bang for buck on the whole list.

It's no easy task, mind you. Sniffing out these under-radar bottles of vino for a song is a very difficult task. It’s easy to pepper dash back-vintages of Montrachet and verticals of Krug Champagne across a wine list for sparkle (if you can afford for the bottles to be sitting in your cellar collecting dust for years on end), but the real genius these days is in acquiring thoughtful, inexpensive house wines that are more delicious in their simple consumption than in the stock pot.

Three glasses with white, rose and red wine on a wooden barrel in the vineyard. Wide photo
Three glasses with white, rose and red wine on a wooden barrel in the vineyard. Wide photo

The ultimate house wine should be simple, characterful, and downright delicious. The white must be refreshing and zippy, with a little texture to stand up to food. The red should be juicy and fruity; not too light and definitely not too heavy. This needs to work with and without food. Both should have little (certainly not obvious) use of oak, be moderate in alcohol and low in sweetness. They should be high on the drinkability scale.

My broad criteria for a house wine are the following: The wine must taste like the grape variety it claims to be, have a sense that it comes from the place it claims to come from, and be something I’d be very happy to stick on the table for friends and family (all at the right price point, of course). Seemingly simple, one my think, until you experience the vast number of bland, industrially made and chemically altered wines that dominate the category.

It's likely that you’re reading this and thinking back to a romantic holiday, perhaps in the South of France, and remembering your “favourite ever red wine made by Jean-Michel and his elderly grandmother, and it was only €1 per jerry can!”. Sure, instances of fortune do exist. Sadly, these charming (often rustically so) wines are rarely made in the necessary volumes for export, and lack the stability and consistency required for commercial purposes. And that’s not to mention the additional cost applied to the bottle by packaging, logistics and most concerningly, the horrifically steep UK excise import duty and VAT tariffs (and dare I suggest, some profit?!). Wine isn’t generally the right medium with which to carry a political message, be it in the paper or with your friends in the pub, but I’m happy to share my thoughts on the planned upcoming changes to alcohol import duty if you don’t mind seeing a man in the business of buying and selling wine on the edge of a nervous breakdown. . .

To me, house wine is equally as important at home as when I go out. Sure, I’m in the one per cent of wine drinkers who are happy to spend too much on a bottle of wine in an unending quest for deliciousness, but generally my budget is that of a humble wine merchant. There is an old adage that to make a small fortune in wine, you have to start out with a large one. . . So for most of the week, I’m looking to get my kick from outstanding, individualistic wines, generally between £10-£15. I’m not alone. It’s been said for many years that you’re more likely to find a bottle of wine in a British fridge than a packet of butter. This is information we have thanks to Wine Drinkers UK.

So, at Vino Gusto we have been putting in a lot of effort by way of tasting wines from across the globe (yes, we’re doing the hard work so that you don’t have to!) in our hunt for quality house wines. So far, we’ve found great success in unfashionable regions of Spain and South Africa (though not exclusively) and are eagerly awaiting shipment of these vinous gems before the Christmas rush.

Our hunt hasn’t been aimless, of course (though may have been a little blurred by the end of some of our tasting sessions). We’ve had the purpose in mind of sourcing a terrific selection of house wines for our new sister business, Damon & Wilde (59 Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds), which will make their way onto the list in the new year. A building of such beauty requires a wine list of equal elegance.

With Damson & Wilde on the mind, we’d love for you to join the Vino Gusto team on Monday and Tuesday, November 27 and 28th, for our annual Christmas Wine Fair, which will be hosted in the covered and heated garden area at Damson & Wilde. This will be a fun opportunity to taste up to approximately 80 wines (including some of our most spectacular house wines) and meet the team with a selection of our producers and import partners. We’ll have an afternoon and an evening session on both days. Tickets are £10, but refunded against the purchase of wine on the day. Bookings and full information can be found on the ‘Tastings & Events’ page of our website: vinogusto.co.uk.