House wine & old vines…a lesson in both

By / Magazine / July 15th, 2015 / 10
Should I avoid a restaurant’s house wine?

A wise man (it might have been me) once said, “You can really judge how serious a restaurant is about wine by what it pours by the glass, especially when it comes to its most cheap and cheerful juice.”

Does that philosophy recite well at a roadside mom-and-pop type joint? Probably not. Pointing fingers at comfort (or fast food-esque) restaurants is a fool’s errand. They’re looking to wet your whistle, not tantalize your palate. If they serve vino at all, it probably comes from a box the size of an upright piano, so caveat emptor.

Fine dining “establishments,” on the other hand, are fair game when their liquid choices are put under the microscope. Since most brag up their beverages (and to sort of finally answer your question), what they put forward as a house wine should a) show some thought, b) represent their overall wine philosophy, and c) be, at the very least, pleasantly drinkable.

Back to that wise man quote. I always order a glass of house to help lubricate my perusal of the menu. After much trial and error I can say with some authority that finding a decent drop at a reputable resto can still be a crapshoot that, in the end, may not represent the inspiration behind their full wine list.

I’ve been to fantastic restaurants with impressive wine cellars that throw their single-serve selections together with the grace of my mother tossing out the first pitch at a Blue Jays opener and just as many that see their vino commitment all the way through to their everyday offerings.

With wine’s popularity on the upswing (especially with Millennial-aged drinkers) there’s a lot of “white tablecloth” posers out there looking to sell you a great bottle rather than a good glass — they make more moolah from 750 ml, after all.

All that said, the times they are a-changing, with more and more restaurants taking advantage of customers drinking less but better by injecting inspiration and choice into their house offerings. So ask your server for a reco and let your palate be your barometer.

Why would anyone want to make wine with the grapes from “old vines?”

Hey, old is the new young. At least that’s what I keep telling myself with every passing birthday.

For your question to bear fruit, you have to understand the life cycle of a vine. On average it take about five years of growth before a winemaker can get picking, and the typical berry-bearing years of a vine top out around 40 years.

At the core of your enquiry is, who cares?

Well, as a vine gets older its capacity to create diminishes. That means with a little TLC, what berries it can pop get its full love and affection. Rather than having the vine make many ripe, a winemaker can make it focus its talents on just a few, which means the intensity of its liquid outcome will be crazy high.

In California, where anything marketable is marketed, old-vine wines tend to be ones made with grapes from a vine at least 35 years old. You’ll see a lot of Zinfandel claiming the designation because it’s proven to keep the faith well past its supposed retirement age.

They’re kids compared to some of the vines still pumping the jam in Australia. I’ve wandered plenty of vineyards Down Under and they’ve got plants over 150 years old that are functioning members of winery society.

While they may look as gnarly as something out of Lord of the Rings, they still produce grapes that make incredible wines.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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