Thursday 15 August 2013

House Wines for the home – a sensible notion…

Maybe, I was thinking, what my home needs are a couple of House Wines. Go-to, drinkable, red and white, not for special occasions but for everyday. Dependable, versatile and cheap, so you can drink them without fuss. And bought by the case, so they’re always there when you need them. Like a restaurant’s house wines – but at home. This, to me, seemed sensible.

But as we all know, there is a critical edge to the notion of ‘sensible’. It’s one of the worst possible adjectives to append to characterful things, like clothes, or cars. It suggests that one has sacrificed something expressive to the dull priorities of finance and practicality. So is there such a thing as a sensible wine purchase?

This all started when I spotted a Chilean sauvignon blanc called Phantom River, reduced at Sainsbury’s from £7.49 to £4.99. I know, I know, it probably wasn’t worth £7.49 in the first place, but suddenly it had crossed that magic £5 pricepoint, at which skies clear, veils are lifted from one’s eyes, and one is transported back into an era when telephones had dials.

And it’s a perfectly adequate white wine. It’s a sauvignon blanc, and you know what that tastes like – crisp, grapefruity, faintly floral, no mucking about. Okay, there’s a load of guff on the back label about a ‘phantom of the river’ which we could do without, but the front label is perfectly presentable and won’t disgrace a supper table. Drinkable, presentable, £4.99 – what’s not to like?

And then, Sainsbury’s announced another offer, whereby six bottles of any wine gained a further 25% reduction – even if it was reduced already. So suddenly, six bottles which were already a pretty impressive £30 give or take had another £7.50 taken off. That’s £3.75 a bottle. (No, don’t be awed, I’ve got a calculator.)

It’s pretty remarkable to find any wine for £3.75 a bottle which isn’t an emetic. Surely it had to be sensible to buy half a dozen? Which is why I picked up a case – well, hoisted might be a better word for an entire case – and returned to the trolley with a box under my arm like a parent with a recalcitrant toddler.

(Of course one has to suffer the lifestyle betrayal of any bulk purchase in one’s trolley, but a quantity of wine, with its suggestion of profligate consumption, is less embarrassing than, say, an entire case of Anusol.) 

So, a case of cheap, drinkable, and reasonably good-looking wine – that’s my House White taken care of, for, ooh, at least a week.

I came across my House Red in a mixed case of “Under £6” wines from The Wine Society. It’s Cortello,  a basic vinho tinto from near Lisbon. The 2012 they’re now selling is a bit more gnarly than the 2010 I started with, but it’s bright, it’s young, bit of blackcurrant on the nose, fruity yet puckish in that manner of Portuguese wines – it’s a good tumbler wine – and it’s £5.95 a bottle.

You can cook with wine at that price without regret, but you can drink this one too. Indeed, I find that opening a bottle in order for someone to cook with it is a very fine prelude to someone (else) drinking the rest of the bottle. 

But in fact, Mrs K also enjoys drinking this one; and again, I’ve found that coming up from the cellar with a bottle of which one can say, “It’s that one you like,” will lower many an accusatory eyebrow. All good, sensible reasons for my House Red.

It’s just that…

Here I am, buying cases of wines I know are basically… okay. There’s something on the troubling side of sensible about it, like buying baked beans in multipacks. Who really wants to admit that future to themselves?

What one loses is the spirit of adventure. And I’m an adventurous man. Well, the sort of man who removes a USB stick without ejecting it properly.

And I enjoy that moment of anticipation before I open an unknown bottle. That reappraisal of the label, holding the bottle at arm’s length as if distance will grant objectivity. Trying to remember where it came from, what it cost, whether a dinner guest left it as a gift. Trying to assess what it might taste like, what it should taste like, to see if you’ve learnt from your mistakes. Asking yourself one question – do you feel lucky?

But perhaps the sensible is a shackle one accepts in middle age; the price of forward planning. Our household also bulk purchases toilet rolls and car windscreen wash, and neither of them provide excitement or adventure. It’s just nice to know they’re there. 

And at least with wine, you can have the best of both worlds. You might not be able to have in your garage both the practical, dependable modern article and the unreliable but good-looking and potentially exciting vintage – but you can in your wine cellar.



  1. I totally understand the dichotomy about buying a case of 'everyday' wine. Mine is the Stark-Condé cabernet sauvignon, which I buy from Costco at about £30 a case. It goes well with easy-cook Italian and stir fries, which are my fallback after a day's work.

    (My tip on that wine - 2010 much better vintage than 2011, less soft and round and predictable; so if you see both years on the shelf, as is often the case at Costco, go for the older one.)

    But the reason we love wine is the unpredictability of it, the flourish of popping a cork on something that we've not tasted before and which might lift a weekday evening dinner to something other than sustenance for the next twenty-four hours of working drudgery.

    My trust in the Wine Society's buyers is now sufficient that I have taken to ordering bottles under £10 almost at random from their list; the more obscure the better. And if I see a random region or grape in a supermarket, I might try it as an experiment - not always successfully, it has to be said (, to give a recent example).

    As you rightly say, we can be predictable and sensible with grocery and household shopping. But I'm not ready to do that on my wine shopping just yet.

  2. Set off on the same quest (after return from holiday in France) just before I read the article. I found Le Fleuve Bleu rouge in M&S. It is a blend of Grenach, Syrah & Carignan "from the sunniest regions of France." Sounds a bit suspect, but I think it's quite a good House Wine. Anyone out there agree?


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