Before I brazenly ordered my first bottle for the table (a Rioja in Durham, if you must know), a wine list’s by-the-glass section was my safe space. Far from being part of a well-heeled family of wine drinkers, I was constantly skint and ordering the house wine reminded me of it. Utterly overwhelmed, instead of taking a punt on my burgeoning knowledge, I’d anxiously squawk ‘red’ or ‘white’ at a well-meaning sommelier whom I’d convinced myself hated me. I couldn’t help but feel I wasn’t getting the best out of the wine list and that I was boring.
Since, however, I’ve learnt that a lot of fun can be had by the glass; that this dozen-bottle stretch of the list is a haven for discovery and experimentation. One where, mercifully, mistakes have a sub-£10 price tag. The best of London’s restaurateurs and sommeliers go to great pains to sniff out a brilliant, cheap option anyway — a more arduous a task than it sounds. Co-founder of Noble Rot, Dan Keeling went to such lengths that he ended up developing the spritzy Claptonite-favourite, Chin Chin. And you don’t need me to tell you that’s a goodie.
So why do great restaurants care so deeply about their house wines? The same reason you care about refilling your Aesop bottles for the downstairs loo: first impressions are everything. A house wine is the first thing you see when you open a wine list. As you decide on your final order, it may well be the first thing you taste. And well, if your first sip is a bad one, what other horrors might lie in store for your palate? You’re only as good as your cheapest glass, and here are the best in the capital.
The St John Crémant de Limoux
A wine that always has me rubbing my trotters with glee. St John works directly with winemakers for its own-label wines, identifying through ample tasting on which bottles they’d affix the prized piggy. Its wine list contrives to have at least one such bottling in every colour, but the first thing you rest your eyes on is the house sparkling: the St John Crémant de Limoux. Citrusy and steely, like biting into an apple. £9.50 a glass
The Manteca Sicilian blend
Head of wine Emily Acha Derrington and co-founder Chris Leach blended Volume One of their own-label wine back in April. It has just landed on what (I think) is one of the best-value wine lists in London. Produced with Sicilian wine co-operative Valdibella, it’s a blend of 40% single-vineyard Catarratto extra lucido, 40% Grillo and 20% Catarratto from one of Valdibella’s oldest vineyards, left on the skins for 10 days. The result is not orange wine (leave the east London argot at the door), but a golden serve with an acidity that slices through the palate and its fatty coppa like steel. £9.50 a glass
The Kol rosé
Last time I checked, Mexican-British restaurant Kol had four of its own wines, created as a collaboration between head chef and owner Santiago Lastra, importer Modal Wines and Slovakian winemaker Slobodné. Its blend is 60% Blaufränkisch and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon with a vivid colour, saline finish and fresh red fruit at the core. Santiago once told me the reason he works only with natural wines is because they remind him of aguas frescas — a refreshing Mexican drink with fruit at the front and centre. He hopes these wines evoke a similar (if pricier) sipping experience. £9 a glass
The Noble Rot Tempranillo
Informed by Noble Rot house white’s viral success, the restaurant has just realised its self-developed house red. With an equally eye-grabbing label by illustrator John Broadley, this is a blend years in the making. I went to the recently opened bottle shop, Shrine to the Vine, to pick up a bottle and was immediately hooked. Silky, with a subtle vanilla lick from partial use of oak, order this alongside one of its many delectable terrines. £5 a glass
The Bistro Freddie Syrah
There are some restaurants from which one must resolve to forever forfeit one’s heart (and money) the moment one first steps over the threshold. For me, Bistro Freddie is one of them. It’s all long candles and white tablecloths, with a nicotine-cream paint job and an open, inviting dining room. Its by-the-glass red is a bistro-style Syrah, lightly chilled, as is customary in those 9th arrondissement/Shoreditch-type places. Here, however, instead of buying it by the bottle, reusable vessels are refilled from a keg. Wine director Alexandra Price reckons they save around 100 bottles a month, plus the labels become increasingly crimson from the constant refilling, which is, ostensibly, part of the charm. £7.50 a glass