They are wines that have a place in every home, though there’s no formal name for their kind: They’re sip-with-pizza-on-a-Tuesday-night quaffs, yet they’re nice enough to bring to a friend’s house for a casual dinner. They are enjoyable right out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t be a travesty if you cooked with them. These wines are, as 90+ Cellars’ vice president and co-founder Brett Vankoski calls them, “soldiers” that protect your cellar’s more treasured bottlings from premature death. I just call these all-purpose, buy-by-the-case bottles our “house” wines.
I’ve spent the last month or so evaluating dozens of under-$20 wines for Fortune. Many were “classical, seasonal, versatile and affordable,” all qualities that Colleen Holden, wine director at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston, looks for in house wines. I also found that the wines I wanted to reach for again did not have too much acid, oak, tannins, or alcohol.
So how much should you spend on these wines by the case, and what should you buy? Here are our experts’ top tips on how to shop for them, along with a dozen of Fortune’s recommendations for easy-to-find, please-everyone bottles.
- Stick with newer vintages. Wines meant for casual drinking don’t age particularly well. “If a wine is meant to be drunk fresh,” as are most whites and rosés, says Holden, “it’s important that you’re buying the most recent vintage, or just one year prior.” A $12 2005 rosé, in other words, is no bargain.
- Be mindful of the alcohol content. If you’re enjoying a glass or two during the week, says Vankoski, “a 15% alcohol wine is not what you want.” Stick to wines in the 12%-to-14% range, which Vankoski likens to “session” ales, if you don’t want to be hurting at work the next day.
- Get it while the getting is good. Word about a great bottle at a giveaway price can spread like wildfire. Jeff Wooddy, general manager of Rochambeau Wines in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., says that shortly after turning his customers on to a $13 Médoc cru bourgeois, “it was suddenly a wine that only sold by the case … We had a customer who would drive here from Greenwich and put six cases in the back of his Bentley, and off he went. We must have sold over 200 cases of that wine.” The moral: Buy up a few cases of a favorite now—or cry later.
- Don’t go too cheap. How much should you spend on a good weeknight wine? Our experts all give retail price ranges between $10 and $18, and they say $15 seems to be the “sweet spot” at which you’ll taste a noticeable step up in quality. Fortune’s tastings bear this out. And don’t forget: With a 20% case discount, a $15 wine will only cost you $12.
Here are our dozen picks for Fortune’s favorite affordable house wines:
Mulderbosch 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé Coastal Region ($14) Dry, with mouthwatering acidity. A fuller-bodied rosé from South Africa, with raspberry and orange/grapefruit flavors.
Aia Vecchia 2014 Vermentino Toscana IGT ($12) Plump, round, and minerally, with pear and melon flavors. A drink-anywhere white that’s not overly dry or acidic. Very pleasing.
Arnaldo Caprai 2013 Grechetto Colli Martani DOC ($20) Has a clean feel and a sturdy backbone plus pear, mineral, and olive oil flavors. Versatile enough to be a fine apéritif or a good accompaniment to seafood or poultry.
Columbia Crest 2014 H3 Sauvignon Blanc Horse Heaven Hills ($15) The bottle should say “springtime fresh” on the label; shows citrus and stone fruit couched in a clean, pleasing mouthfeel. Will have wide appeal.
Dourthe 2013 La Grande Cuvée Bordeaux AOC ($13) A crisp white with herb, mineral, and citrus flavors. Just the thing for the raw bar—or enjoy it on its own.
Hanna 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley ($19) A taste of summer: This California white wine has sunny peach and pear flavors, a smooth, river-rock feel, and good length on the finish.
Santa Cristina 2014 Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie ($12) Has bright green apple and grapefruit flavors; pretty straightforward but delivers a good, everyday wine at an affordable price.
Château Saint-Sulpice 2012 Bordeaux AOC ($15) Approachable but not simple; red fruit has nutty, earthy nuances and a nice mocha note on the finish. One to drink with dinner. 70% Merlot.
Enrique Mendoza 2012 La Tremenda Monastrell Alicante ($12) Has pleasing spice and herbal accents to the cherry/blackberry fruit; it’s the easy kind of Spanish wine you’d order by the glass at your favorite tapas bar.
La Follette 2013 Pinot Noir North Coast ($20) A forward California style with a soft feel, it’s rife with berry and cherry flavors. More nuanced than a basic Pinot, but still affordable.
Masseria Li Veli 2013 Passamante Negroamaro Salice Salentino DOC ($13) Well balanced and easy to drink, with forward but tangy berry-basket flavors. Delivers nice quality at a bargain price. You totally want this with red-sauced Italian fare.
Qupé 2012 Syrah Central Coast ($20) California Syrah with an Old World soul: big, juicy, black and purple fruit with earth, clay, smoke/mocha, and fresh herbal nuances.