House (Wine) Hunters: Four tasty Italian reds from Barone di Bernaj, at $8.99 per bottle

It's been months since we last shared some good house wine recommendations in the form of a trio of Pinot Noirs last fall, but we're once again hunting for great wine at great prices so you can:

  • Spend a bit less on wine by serving something that is better than its price;
  • Take advantage of economy of scale by purchasing a case (12 bottles) at a discount to drive the per bottle cost down;
  • Have some bottles on hand for lazy evenings that don't call for anything fancy;
  • Use some discretion when serving guests who aren't as picky (or whose tastes not as sophisticated); and
  • Avoid blowing an expensive high end wine for that "last bottle" when friends are over (you never fully appreciate the "last bottle").

When choosing a house wine, use our three main criteria that the wine:

  1. Be broadly pleasing, i.e. something that most people can enjoy; 
  2. Outperform its price point, i.e. is better than what you'd expect for the price; and
  3. Cost no more than $15 per bottle when purchased by the case (in most cases we're looking at house wines in the $8 - $12 range).

This lineup of Italian wines -- Barone di Bernaj -- all come from the same Sicilian producer, Madaudo, founded in 1945, which was... an interesting time in Italy. We featured one, the Frappato, in last May's House (Wine) Hunters: Transitioning to refreshing summer whites and lighter reds lineup. Barone di Bernaj produces a number of whites as well, but we happened into several cases of four of their reds that we really enjoyed. All were $8.99 per bottle when purchased by the case. While we did find some priced less, we're not sure if that bargain could be easily replicated, so we're sticking with $8.99.

2013 Barone di Bernaj Frappato ($8.99 per bottle, by the case)

Why we chose it: The Frappato grape, though somewhat rare in the market, makes for easy drinking wines that are well suited for the house wine scene. This particular winery was founded in the mid-1940s makes a nice lineup of other varietals. Their Frappato is going to give you hints of dessert strawberry. 

What to look for: Our recommendation here is for a Frappato specifically. Uniquely fruity but dry, Frappatos are a nice choice for drinkers just getting into red wine, but makes a good casual sipper for more experienced drinkers as well. You won't find them in every supermarket, but a local wine merchant can probably track down an order for you.

2014 Barone di Bernaj Nero D'Avola

Why we chose it: Nero D'Avola was meant to pair with pizza, itself a meal that begs for a house wine. We reach for a bottle every time we pull out the pizza cutter. You might notice some tennis ball rubber in the nose when you first open it, but you can trust that this bottle will settle down after a few minutes into smoother cranberry notes that make it doubly great to serve your definitely-not-a-wine-snob grandmother at Thanksgiving. It shows some chocolate with that cranberry after it's been opened for about thirty minutes, with a little tartness to add texture. This bottle pairs well with food, but can absolutely be drank on its own.

What to look for: Nero D'Avola (often referred to simply as "Nero") is, happily, a pretty low-cost wine varietal in the retail market. It also happens to be pretty ubiquitously available. You'll not have any trouble finding a Nero, even if you can't find the Barone di Bernaj specifically.

2014 Barone di Bernaj Nero D'Avola - Syrah Blend

Why we chose it: The Nero blends with some Syrah to produce a wine possessed of beautiful dark color. It's subtly alcoholic, with a little rusty nose and iron minerality introduced by the Syrah, which blends nicely with the lush mouthfeel of the Nero. Serve this with similar dishes as the Nero discussed above, but when you want to notch the wine complexity up a bit.

What to look for: This blend isn't growing on trees (ha!), so it's something you may find yourself having to specifically ask for.

2014 Barone di Bernaj Cabernet Sauvignon

Why we chose it: This Cab throws up an earthy nose, and is characterized by more tartness and red fruit -- cranberry, almost -- than Cabernet from California or France of which most wine drinkers think. Less tannic as well, the Barone di Bernaj Cabernet Sauvignon is far more light than you'd expect, making it a surprisingly nice Cab to drink alone or with food at $8.99 per bottle.

What to look for: There are more famous native-Italian grapes, but the Italians do make Cab, and they do make it in this style. Finding something at the $8.99 price point is debatable, but in general the Italians produce their own specialties at the higher price points, making their lighter body Cabs something of a bargain when you get your hands on them.