OK. Who hasn’t received similar advice from both guidebooks, and friends just returning from their first trip from Italy: “Drink the house wine! It’s great, and cheap!” So of course, on your first trip you take this sage advice to heart and enjoy the house wine with everything from panini to a gourmet meal. Anything wrong with that? No. However…
That was then, this is now. House wine no longer has a mandate. So what’s changed?
Wines. Wines have changed. There is a broader variety of better wines that cost much less, especially when you can drink them in the country where they are produced, particularly when they’re from producers you’ll never find back home. It’s un grave errore to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and not explore the non-house wine options, at least on occasion.
What is the difference between house and bottled wine, anyway? House wines are young, fresh, usually fruity (not sweet) and low in alcohol. They are the ideal accompaniment to panini, a quick primo between sightseeing, or anytime you are deciding between wine or an iced tea (which will cost more).
Sitting down to enjoy a four-course meal, though, merits drinking a wine chosen specifically to accompany it. These wines may not be big, aged, or necessarily even famous (best not to choose a wine based on its marketing budget). Indulging in a classic Italian meal that celebrates local cuisine is the ideal time to venture a better wine. And if you’re in a group of four, six, or eight, it’s even easier to choose two or more different wines, as each person will consume a smaller amount of each wine.
But how to choose? Most of us are intimidated by our lack of knowledge of wine, for a number of reasons. First, it’s not an original part of our culture. Although the U.S. (for example) produces some wonderful wines, unless you produce them yourself or are within a stone’s throw of Sonoma valley, you probably don’t identify much with wine or winemaking.
Then, there are more wines being produced all the time, all over the world, and unless it’s your business, the sheer number makes them that much more difficult to keep up with, let alone understand how to differentiate among them. It can seem like another job!
Add to that, that almost everything about the wine culture is confusing: the jargon, the labels, to the yet-to-be-completely-dismantled opinion that you have to have some special gift to “really” understand wine. The result? We depend on number rating to choose a wine. What does a number tell you about a wine? Nothing. (Sure, it speaks to our qualifying nature, but I mean, if a wine isn’t good, why is the store where you’re shopping carrying it anyway?)
It’s only attention and experience that brings a greater wine understanding. Experience is a lot easier to come by (and costs less) when you live in a country whose wine sales not only comprise a significant percentage of the GDP, but that has been producing wine for hundreds of years.
The good news is, you don’t have to know very much to order an excellent, reasonably-priced bottiglia or two with your meal. Choose a place that has an ample selection of wine, then ask your server (or proprietor, or sommelier) for their recommendation. Give them an idea of your budget, whether you have any preference (white, red, fruity or dry, aged, or younger, higher or lower alcohol content, spumante or still (fermo), local, regional, etc.). However, if this is a recommended locale known for their wines, never be afraid to let them choose.
Does this mean opting the house wine is now a bad idea? Dipende…it depends. Try an appealing alternative ogni tanto, when the meal merits is. You won’t regret it.
Then…spread the word!