House Wine Habit?

I thought for a long time that Natalie McLean is a damn good writer and knew her way around a bottle and a vineyard or two. Last year some information came along to challenge that. But I had already disagreed with her when when she said (on her website) that every wine lover should have a “house wine.” In my experience, that’s precisely what people who are new to wine get wrong, and what often keeps them from learning about new wine places, varietals and styles.

Is there anything wrong with enjoying a particular wine, and keeping several bottles of it on hand for guests and gatherings? No. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited friends and been “treated” to the same Merlot from the same winery – their “house wine.” When they visit, they are gracious enough to bring wine as a gift, but guess what they bring? Gee, thanks, what a surprise – twice in one week!

Now I’m a big fan of Merlot-based wines, especially those from St. Emilion and Pomerol, and anyone who’s tasted a Chateau Angelus sure knows what I mean. And I’ve even been known to enjoy a glass of California Merlot from time to time. But it’s just one grape in the pantheon of reds, and while my well-meaning friends are happily numbing their palates, they’re missing out on so much. It’s just too easy to stay with one varietal and one winery once you get comfortable with them, like a worn out couch…or husband. But it’s not much fun.

So here’s a short list of what you’re missing:

Cabernet Franc: As a varietal it can be wonderful, with vegetal notes in a cherry wrapping. Try Lang & Reed.

Carmenere: Almost unknown here, they do great things with this smoky, leathery grape in France and Chile, and nowadays even California. Also known as Grand Vidure.

Charbono: Obscure grape that they’re still making into a varietal in north Napa. Try Summers Estate Winery.

Grenache: So delicious as the base of French red Chateauneuf du Pape wines. White Grenache is the base of the white ones.

Mourvedre: An intense, tannic and gamey grape that originated in Spain. Can stand alone but is most often used in blends. Also called Monastrell.

Norton: A native North American grape that can produce a spicy, raspberry-y red. Try Augusta Winery.

Petit Sirah: Not the same as Syrah, and makes a fabulous varietal every bit as big and bold as a cult Cabernet. Try Pedroncelli.

Pinotage: A South African cross of Pinot Noir with Cinsault.

Sangiovese: Base for Chianti wines. When blended with Cabernet and/or Merlot, these are the so-called “Super Tuscans.” A clone of Sangiovese goes into one of the best wines of the last 10 years, the Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova, which got an unheard-of 100 points in 2001 from Wine Spectator, and was its “Wine of the Year” in 2006.

Tempranillo: Spanish grape, main part of Spanish Rioja red wines and goes into Port under the name Tinto Roriz.

Tannat: From the French Madiran region. Intensely tannic wine that can cellar age for decades.

So: love your house wine, if you have one. But step out on it frequently. You’ll be glad you were unfaithful.