It's at the top of every wine list from high-end Michelin-starred restaurants to local pubs. But can house wine be trusted to deliver quality and good value?
For some, house wine is rejected as something for the unadventurous or undiscerning, whereas for others it’s an attractively simple option and easy on the wallet.
But what defines a house wine? And should it ever be fully trusted by consumers?
Navigating the wine lists of restaurants and wine bars sometimes can be confusing and off-putting. Many people put their trust in an establishment’s chosen house wine, as a way to avoid gambling their money on more obscure options.
Most wine lists will feature worryingly little information about the wines, often with only the title of the wine and the vintage as a guide. For some customers, it’s simply too arduous or intimidating to ask staff to elaborate – with no guarantee that the person they ask will be well-versed on the wine list anyway.
In this case, people lurch to the comfort and predictability of a red, white or rosé house wine.
‘In my personal view the quality of house wines sets the standard for the whole establishment – a good house wine gives a good indication of the standard of food’, Robert Manners, head of sales for the UK trade giant Berry Bros & Rudd told Decanter.com.
‘Put another way – if the restaurateur is cost cutting on the house wines, where else are they doing the same?’
Manners sees establishments becoming more adventurous with their house wine choices, as consumers become more receptive to wines from further afield.
‘Fortunately there is a trend for restaurants to be less reliant on recognised varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, with the introduction of more unfamiliar grape varieties from all around the world’ said Manners, ‘such as Garganega, Nero D’Avola and Carignan to name but a few.’
He also recognises the potential for bars and restaurants to shape the tastes and demands of the wine market through their house wine selection. He outlines, ‘it is the job of establishments to put these new wines forward and let the ‘market’ decide if they want to re-order another bottle’.
Jason Atherton, the owner of one of London’s most innovative modern restaurants, the Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social, has taken the concept one step further.
‘When we opened Pollen Street in 2011 Jason asked me to create our own wine, labelled as Pollen Street House Wine’, said head sommelier Laure Patry.
At Pollen Street Social, they have used the idea of a house wine to put forward a wine that represents and complements the ethos of the restaurant.
‘We were looking for a wine that would match what we do best’, said Patry. ‘This meant small producers, low intervention winemaking and a wine that would stand up to our food. I chose an Anjou Chenin Blanc for the white and a Cabernet Franc/ Grolleau from Clos de L’Elu for the red’.
Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn of 67 Pall Mall has worked on wine lists extensively during his eight years as executive sommelier for the Gordon Ramsay group, as well as for Claridge’s, The Savoy and The Dorchester.
‘It should be a reflection on the quality of your establishment, so should be chosen with great care’, Sayburn told Decanter.com.
‘A house wine should come with a history and story that all staff feel happy to convey to their customers’.
The message appears to be that house wine should be trusted on the basis of the ‘house’ from which it comes. And the quality of a house wine can be an accurate indicator both of a bar/restaurants’ standards – and the way they view their customers.