Choosing House Wines - By Tony Aspler

One of the ironies of the wine world is that sometimes small is beautiful and other times large is beautiful. It all depends on your perspective.

Tony Aspler Let me explain. If you're seeking out the world's great wines - and by great wines I mean the exalted growths of Bordeaux (Châteaux Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Pétrus, etc.), domaine-bottled Burgundies (Romanée-Conti et al), Super Tuscan Sassicaia and Tignanello, California's Screaming Eagle, Australia's Grange, or the planet's best dessert wine, Château d'Yquem - in other words, the world's most sought-after wines - the idea is to think small. The area where the grapes come from is small (a single vineyard), so is the yield at harvest (as low as two tonnes per acre), and consequently so too is the number of bottles available to collectors. (Château Pétrus, for example, only makes about 5,000 cases a year.) The only thing that is large about these wines is the price and their reputation.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a house wine you'll want to know that it's in plentiful supply and that the price reflects the volumes in which it is made. And then consider the cost of making that wine. You don't have to be an economist to figure out that it is cheaper to make wine in Chile than it is in France; so a Chardonnay that sells for $10 from Chile should be better value in terms of its price/quality ratio than a $10 white Burgundy from France.

When you're looking for house wines - those wines you drink every day and may buy by the case - keep the following notions in mind. It makes sense to gravitate towards the big companies who have the resources to invest in the latest technologies that will provide you, the consumer, with clean, well-made wines, who have extensive vineyard holdings from which to source their grapes so they can select which wines will end up in their blend and who have economies of scale that allow them to price their products competitively.

Based on these principles, I offer you the following recommendations for house wines between $10 and $30 that over-achieve in the taste and quality department relative to their price. All the wines I've chosen are on Ontario's LCBO general list.

Bodega Norton Chardonnay 2004 from Argentina ($10.05). This is great value for the price. Deeply coloured with a ripe pear and pineapple bouquet with just enough oak to give it a toasty, smoky note. This wine performs better than New World Chardonnays at twice the price. Match it with salmon straight from the BBQ, or even with steak if you're not into red wines; it has the cojones to stand up to red meat.

Château Bonnet Entre-Deux-Mers Blanc 2003 from Bordeaux ($12.95). This blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle now comes in screwcap - one of the first French wines to take the plunge (I'm lovin' it). The colour is pale straw with a hint of lime; the nose is sweet grass and gooseberry, suggesting tartness, but the palate is broad with tropical fruit flavours thanks to the remarkable 2003 vintage (they were harvesting in mid August, it was so hot). Try this wine, well chilled, with Gouda cheese or trout in almonds.

Castillo de Molina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 from Chile ($13.50). Chile's second-largest winery, Viña San Pedro, has been making some very creditable wines under this label. Deep ruby-purple in colour with a bouquet of cedar, crushed blackcurrants, vanilla oak; medium-fullbodied, sweet blackcurrant flavour with a floral note; well structured and clean. It's a versatile food wine that you can match with most red meat dishes and with hard cheeses.

Masi Tupungato Passo Doble 2003, again from Argentina ($14.95). Masi is the well respected Veneto producer better known for their Soave, Valpolicella (think Campofiorin) and single-vineyard Amarones. Sandro Boscaini, who runs the company, has transported local Veneto winemaking techniques to the property Masi owns in the Tupungato Valley of Argentina. Using the local Malbec and Merlot grapes, Masi has added the Veneto variety Corvino (the main grape of Valpolicella and Amarone), which is semi-dried before fermentation to concentrate its sugars. Dense purple ruby colour; vanilla, sweet blackberry and chocolate nose; rich, full-bodied mouth feel, sweet fruit with a plum and raisin flavour; well balanced. Good value. Try it with lamb chops or pepper steak.

Wolf Blass Brown Label Shiraz 2002 from Australia ($29.95; it may appear on the shelves under the new Grey label). This is one of your "hail fellow well met" Aussie reds that makes friends at first acquaintanceship. Take a leap up from Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon and try this stunning Shiraz. A rich mix of blackberry, dark chocolate, smoky oak and mint with a peppery, medicinal note. You'll need a big meat dish for this wine - game or spicy ribs.

About the Author

Tony Aspler has been active in the international wine world since 1964. He received his basic wine education in London, England, at Grant's of St. James' Wine School (passed with Distinction).

As a consultant and wine judge, he makes frequent trips to the vineyards and wine fairs of Europe and the new world and is recognized as the leading authority on Canadian wines.

Tony is a member of North American advisory board of the Masters of Wine, is creator of the annual Ontario Wine Awards competition and is the author of nine novels. His latest series is a collection of wine murder mysteries featuring itinerant wine writer Ezra Brant.

To learn more about Tony's wine murder mysteries visit here.

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