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7 HOUSE WINE STYLES TO ALWAYS KEEP IN STOCK

house wines

The ultimate wine lover’s dream is a large wine cellar – with perfect temperature and humidity conditions – laden with treasures from around the wine producing globe. Unfortunately, not all of us have the space or the budget to make this fantasy a reality. But, if you love to drink wine regularly, and to entertain, it is still nice to have a small stock of “house wines” to avoid last minute rushes to the wine store.

Not sure what to buy? Keep reading!

I recommend having at least one bottle of these seven different styles of house wines on hand. They should cover the majority of wine drinking occasions.

***Side note: I have also made this post into a YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series. 

2 Sparkling Wines (yes, you need two!)

First up, sparkling wine. When I moved to France a number of years ago, I discovered something incredible. Small growers in Champagne were selling excellent non-vintage fizz for 12 – 15 euros! At the time, only the big Champagne houses were making it to the liquor store shelves in Canada, and their basic bubblies were five times more expensive than these little gems. I started drinking Champagne regularly. I always had a cold bottle ready for any piece of good news – big or small. Every little triumph was a reason to drink Champagne. Those were the days…

Back home in Montréal, my budget doesn’t quite extend to weekly bottles of Champagne. This is potentially for the best though, as I have been forced to branch out and discover the wide world of excellent sparkling wines outside of France.

I recommend stocking two types of bubblies for your house wines: a more affordable version for the every-day celebrations, and a finer bottle for the big moments.

For your first bottle, even though you are spending less, you still want something you’d enjoy drinking. I suggest seeking out the higher quality tiers of budget-friendly sparkling wine regions. If you like delicate fruity aromas, soft bubbles, and fresh acidity, try Prosecco at the Superiore DOCG level. If you prefer the more vigorous, firm bubbles of Champagne, with hints of brioche, biscuit-type aromas, go for Cava at the Reserva or Gran Reserva level. Crémant wines, made through out France, will also provide a similar experience.

In terms of your fancier fizz, Champagne is obviously the classic choice. If you want to go all out, look for Vintage Champagne or a Prestige cuvées of a non-vintage wine. Don’t forget however, that really top-drawer sparkling wine is cropping up all over the world – potentially in your own backyard – and drinking local is awesome! Look to England, parts of Canada, Tasmania, Marlborough if you want something with that really racy acidity of Champagne. If you want something a little richer & rounder – try California or South Africa’s top sparkling wines.

To learn more about premium sparkling wines, click here.

An Aperitif-style White Wine

Ok…on to your every-day house wines. I enjoy drinking a glass of white wine while I am cooking supper. I want something fairly light in body, crisp, dry and generally un-oaked at this juncture of the evening; a wine that is easy-drinking on its own and as refreshing as lemonade on a hot day. These are also typically the kinds of wines I would serve at a dinner party as an aperitif, or with light fare such as oysters, grilled white fish, or salads.

An easy go-to white wine grape variety is Sauvignon Blanc (more elegant, restrained styles from Loire, more pungent grassy, passion fruit examples from New Zealand) or dry Riesling (try Alsace, or the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia). If you would like to try something a little different, look for the zesty, peach-scented, mineral Albarino grape from Spain, the crisp, dry, herbal, lemony Assyrtiko grape grown mainly on the island of Santorini in Greece, or finally firmly structured, brisk, peach/ grapefruit/ earthy Grüner Veltliner from Austria.

 A Richer, Fuller-bodied White Wine

If you are cooking poultry, fattier fish, cream-based sauces, or serving soft cheeses, you will need a weightier, more textural white that can stand up to the heavier food. Chardonnay wines, notably those aged in oak, work well here. Be careful however, because Chardonnay runs the gamut from quite lean, citrussy & mineral to very broad, heavy & tropical – check with store staff before buying to make sure you get a style that suits your palate.

Interesting alternatives to Chardonnay include white Rhône Valley blends featuring grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. These can also be found outside of France, with fine examples made in Paso Robles, California and Victoria, Australia. Pinot Gris from Alsace, notably the Grand Cru versions, also have a lovely textural weight, depth, and vibrancy of fruit that will shine in this category.

A Light-bodied Red Wine (or Rosé)

Sadly, not all of your guests are going to love white wine (I know…it is a shock to me too). The perfect host will not be flustered by this set-back. They will simply trade out the white for a crisp rosé, or a light, juicy red wine. Pale, dry rosé works well for pre-dinner drinks. Rosés with deeper colour and more depth, or pale, fresh red wines will marry well with those fleshier fish or poultry dishes.

Pinot Noir, Gamay, and lighter styles of Cabernet Franc are excellent light-bodied red wine grapes. Look for cooler climate origins, as the hotter regions will likely verge into the medium to full bodied category, with more baked fruit flavours and higher alcohol. What you are looking for here is tangy acidity, a delicate structure, and fairly silky tannins.

For a more exotic option, try Etna DOC wines, made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, on the slopes of the famed Mount Etna in Sicily.

An ‘”All-Rounder” Red Wine

Between the delicate, tangy light reds and the big, bold ones, I always think that it is a good idea to have a more versatile red in your house wines arsenal. A wine that is medium in body, fresh (but not overly acidic), subtly fruity, smooth and rounded on the palate. These wines tend to pair with the widest range of foods making them a great option for your every-day fare.

Côtes-du-Rhône red wines (made from a blend of Grenache and Syrah) are a fantastic choice here. If you like the style, but prefer a wine with a touch more body and depth, look for the Villages level of Côtes-du-Rhône. Valpolicella from the Veneto in Italy is also a lovely, fruity option, or – if you like the vanilla, spice flavours of oaked reds – try a Rioja Reserva.

A Full-bodied Red Wine

When you are barbecuing steak, preparing a heartily flavoured stew, or serving pungent, hard cheeses, you need a wine with equally bold flavours. The tannins from these more powerful reds also binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours, and in turn, reducing the astringency of the wine.

A wide range of options exist. Classics include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends (with more vibrant, tart fruited examples from Bordeaux vs. more lush, ultra-ripe fruited versions from the Napa Valley), Malbec and Syrah are also great traditional choices. Looking a little further afield, you could try Portuguese blends from the Douro region, or Grenache, Carignan blends from Priorat region of Spain.

Final Thoughts

In France, the dessert is sometimes accompanied by a sweet wine and it is common practice to offer a digestif (literally a wine/ spirit to help you digest) after the meal. The French really know how to live. Sigh…

There is a vast world of amazing options out there but, for most of us, after-dinner wines tend only to be served on special occasions. Unless space permits, you don’t necessarily need to stock these in advance.

I hope that this helps you a little with your next trip to the wine store. If you have any questions, or comments on any of the wines, write me a comment and I will happily respond.

Education Reviews Wines

A Tasting Tour of Spain

Tio Pepe Cellars

Last Thursday, I attended La Grande Dégustation tasting event in Montréal. The theme country this year is Spain. For the country with the largest surface area under vine in the world, I do not devote nearly as much time as I should to tasting its wines. In the past, if given just two words to describe Spanish wines, I would have said oak and alcohol.  While this is not entirely untrue, I knew that my predjudice was based on vast over generalization so I decided to spend some time at the show on a tasting tour of Spain.

I started in Penedès, with a glass or three of bubbles. Cava is predominantly white (though rosé exists) and made in much the same way as Champagne. The major differences are the terroir and the grapes. In Cava, the native varieties Macabeu, Xarel-lo and Parellada dominate. Just as the right ingredients simmered together create the singular flavour of a delicious dish, each grape brings unique attributes that when blended, make a harmonious finished wine. Macabeu, the main player, is fairly neutral with subtle floral and lemon aromas and a touch of bitter almond on the finish. Doesn’t sound that exciting? Just think of it as the base…like homemade stock before you’ve added any salt or seasoning herbs. Xarel-lo (pronounced cha-re-low) is more overtly aromatic and fuller bodied. Parellada gives searing acidity and pronounced green apple and citrus notes. Bone dry (Brut Nature and Extra Brut) Cava exists, as do slightly sweet, off-dry (Semi Seco) styles. The majority of bottlings however, are Brut – no perceptible sweetness; just fruity and rounded. For the most part, Cava doesn’t have the finesse or ageing potential of Champagne, but it is generally good value “every day” fizz.

Just as the right ingredients simmered together create the singular flavour of a delicious dish, each grape brings unique attributes that when blended, make a harmonious finished wine.

My next stop was way down south in Andalucía, for some dry Sherry (aka Jerez). If you think Sherry is a sweet, sticky wine only good for cooking or as a gift for your grandmother, drink again. There is a huge range of apéritif styles from the delicate, bone dry Finos to the richly concentrated Oloroso. Dry Sherry is made from the native Palamino grape. What makes it so special is the ageing process. In Fino Sherry, the just fermented wine is fortified to ~15% alcohol, and then transferred to large, old oak barrels filled up 5/6 full. The empty space at the top allows for the development of a film of yeast called flor. This yeast covering protects the wine from oxidation and creates a unique flavour profile of pale, fresh, yet nutty wines with an intriguing salty tang. Oloroso Sherry is fortified to 17.5% alcohol; a level at which flor yeast cannot develop. These wines undergo highly oxidative ageing resulting in darkly coloured, powerful, dry whites with intense raisiny, nutty flavours.

On to cool, rainy north western Galicia for some lively whites. The Albariño grape (aka Alvarinho in Portugal) is the main variety grown in the coastal Rías Baixas DO. When well-made it is a total hedonistic pleasure to drink: bright peach, apricot and floral aromas, vibrant acidity, light bodied and smooth with moderate alcohol; really juicy and fun. Fleshier, creamy, oaked versions exist that can be totally delicious, but the lighter versions are more common. A 3 hour drive inland takes us to the Valdeorras DO; Godello country. While current plantings remain fairly low in the scheme of Spanish wine output, the grape has seen a surge in popularity internationally. And what’s not to like? The slatey soils of Valdeorras give Godello with pretty apple, pear and subtle peach notes, crisp acidity, full, layered texture and a mineral-tinged finish.

Time for the Spanish heavy-weight: Rioja DOC. The pronounced vanilla aromas in Rioja come from long ageing in American oak barrels, bought as staves and crafted by local barrelmakers. Historically, Rioja producers aged their wines for incredibly long periods before release; sometimes upwards of 20 years. Nowadays, the trend is toward fruitier, fresher wines less marked by age and oak. Many wineries are even using French oak, or a mix of both, to give a slightly more subtle, integrated oak profile. Styles are based on grape quality (vineyard site and harvest date) and length of ageing. The youngest wines, called simply Rioja or Joven, are aged less than a year in oak (if at all). The oldest and most prized wines, only made in the best vintages, are the Gran Reservas. They are aged a minimum of 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle before release. The major grape in red Rioja blends is Tempranillo. It is a bold wine with moderate acidity, bright cherry and leather aromas, medium to high alcohol and big, chewy tannins. The younger wines are generally softer and simpler, while the Gran Reservas are a full throttle experience.

In the Ribera del Duero DO, the same grape reigns supreme but offers quite a different taste experience. There are several reasons for this. Firstly because a different clone of Tempranillo, called Tinto Fino, is grown here.  Secondly, the high altitude (800m plateau) gives wide fluctuations in temperature from hot days to cool nights giving the wines bold flavours while preserving fresh acidity. Lastly, the supporting grapes are not the same. Whereas Rioja’s second stringers include Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo, Ribera del Duero blends often include a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Roughly the same ageing categories exist as in Rioja. The best Ribera del Duero reds today are dark and inky in colour, concentrated and full bodied with intense, dark berry fruit and mocha notes. Alcohol levels can get quite high here, but the quality wines have enough fruit, body and structure to match.

In the Priorat DOC, south west of Barcelona, old vine Garnacha gives rich, powerful red blends. Cariñena (Carignan in France), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the seasoning grapes. Priorat, with its hot, dry climate and extremely low vigour soils, boasts some of the lowest yields of any top quality vineyards world-wide, at a mere 5 hl/ha (Grand Cru Burgundy = 25 hl/ha). The wines are incredibly concentrated with explosive cherry, tar and licorice aromas. Alcohol is also pretty massive in Priorat, but again, is well-balanced in the top wines.

Here are the stand out wines from my little tour (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out):

Segura Viudas Heredad NV – 86pts. PW

Pretty aromas of pear and brioche, with subtle nutty and floral notes. Zesty acidity, light body and creamy mousse, with a lifted citrus finish.  Pleasant, easy drinking fizz. Drinking well now. 

Grapes: Macabeu, Parelleda

Where to Buy: LCBO (29.95$)

Gonzalez Byass “Tres Palmas” Fino Jerez – 93pts. LW

González Byass, leading Sherry bodega, crafted this beautiful example of an aged Fino on the cusp of becoming Amontillado. Aged for 10 years, the flor has just about run its course, allowing for gentle oxidation. Deep old gold in colour, seductive notes of toffee, walnuts, caramel and marmelade mark the nose. Dry, with crisp acidity, an almost viscous mouth-feel and complex, woody notes on the lengthy finish.

Grapes: Palamino

Where to Buy: SAQ (47.00$, 500mL bottle)

La Caña Albariño Jorge Ordonez 2014 (Rias Baixas DO) – 89pts. PW

Really gluggable; with ripe peach, apricot and citrus aromas. Very fruit-driven on the palate, with balancing acidity. Light and subtly creamy through the mid-palate with just a hint of toasty oak on the finish. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser. 

*** I also highly recommend Jorge Ordonez more premium La Caña Navia old vine Albariño, as well as his Godellos, under the Avancia label. Totally delicious. 

Grapes: Albariño

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.95$)

Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2011 (Rioja DOC) – 91pts. PW

Fantastic value from one of the oldest and most reputable bodegas in Rioja. Inviting aromas of blueberry, black cherry, leather and animal notes on the nose. Bold, with a firm yet velvetty structure, fresh acidity, great depth of flavour and big, chewy tannins. Toasty, cedar and vanilla notes attest to the two years ageing in American oak, but accentuate rather than dominate the finish. 

*** If you want to splurge, the 2005 Gran Reserva is a beautifully complex and layered wine, but I found the oak a little overpowering, slightly drying out the finish.

Grapes: Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo

Where to Buy: LCBO (24.55$), SAQ (22.95$)

Tamaral “Finca la Mira” Reserva 2009 (Ribera del Duero DO) – 89pts. LW

Produced from 100-year old vines from the Finca la Mira vineyard, this Reserva is redolent with floral notes, jammy dark berries, tobacco, leather and hints of mixed spice. Powerful, dense and concentrated with lively acidity and ripe, grippy tannins.  The oak plank and cedar notes from 2-years ageing in French oak are a little overpowering on the finish; disappointing considering the ultra appealing nose and attack. Needs further cellaring or a few hours decanting…and a nice steak to soften the tannin and mask the oak.

Grapes: Tinto Fino

Where to Buy: Not currently available, through the Tamaral Crianza offers decent value: SAQ (24.30$)