Contemplation of variety

When I think of wine in the abstract, I often get the same sort of feeling I used to have as a child on opening a box of chocolates: I contemplate the broad range of flavours laid out in front of me.  I am not sure how common the ability is, but I find it easy to imagine the experience of trying these wines, with and without food.  So in my mind’s palate, as it were,  I can flip backwards and forwards through various taste sensations.

Here I am not at all contemplating subtle differences, complexity, cultural roots or anything of that sort of depth – just marvelling at the sheer diversity of aroma, flavour and mouthfeel.  Some I am more familiar with than others, some I like to experience more often than others, but they are all good and my life would be the poorer if I lost any of them.  The joy is not in trying all of the styles within any particular time frame, but it is knowing that they are available should I wish to indulge.  And if you are feeling in the mood to indulge, the flavour experience is easily realised.  It can be as simple as opening a bottle, possibly with a trip to a wine merchant first.  OK, you might need a bit more patience if you are after more mature pleasures, but there is still a huge range of experiences available from younger wines.

So what about the subtle differences in wine you can experience in horizontal or vertical tastings?  Well yes, they can be important too, and the tastings interesting.  But they are not the primary source of the pleasure wine gives me.  Most of the time I’d much prefer to contrast very different styles of wine as I move through an evening menu from aperitif to dessert and cheese.  I prefer the hedonism of that approach to the more academic appreciation of subtle differences.

Why wine is so expensive in restaurants

I think it is generally accepted that British restaurants make most of their profit on sales of alcohol.  As a wine lover I dislike that practice, but I am going to resist the temptation to rant about it; I am going to examine why it happens to be the case.

I have seen speculation that it may have started as a result of wartime austerity measures. Restaurants were not allowed to charge above a certain amount for food, but there was no limit on wine prices. So restaurants kept their income stream going by selling any available wine at very high prices.  Then, after restrictions were lifted, we were so used to relatively cheap restaurant food and expensive wine that the pattern persisted. Now that might be complete nonsense, but it is a nice theory.  Let me know if you know better.

Regardless of its origins, it is clear to me why this pricing pattern continues today.  Restaurants compete only on the price of food.  Special offers are almost exclusively on food, with deals on multiple courses, or for food ordered when the restaurant is not so busy.  Only rarely do offers apply to wine.  Indeed, restaurants go out of their way to hide the value of the wine they serve.  They prefer to stock wines that rarely appear in shops, and their suppliers feed that preference by selling specially created brands that are not sold through retail channels.  Anyone would think that restaurants were trying to hide their markups on wine.

Also, they are not so keen on advertising wines prices.  Practically every restaurant displays a menu by their door, but how many display a wine list, or even a selection from their list?  I did a quick survey of restaurants close to where I live. Out of the ten in my sample area, only two displayed a wine list.

There was a large range of quality and style in the restaurants I checked, but one things they have in common is that they do not belong to large chains.  Chain restaurants usually do display a wine list, and I’m guessing the reason is that they employ legal advisers – because actually all restaurants are required by law to display their wine list.  According to a guidance note explaining the legal requirements: “For an eating area, prices must be shown at or near the entrance so that the prospective consumer can see them before he enters; a restaurant with direct access to the street will therefore be required to show prices so that they are visible from the street.”  It goes on to say: “When wine is sold for consumption with food (but not when merely sold among other drinks), the price of at least five wines – if this number is available – must be displayed.”  So, many restaurants are not merely keeping us in the dark about their wine prices; they are breaking the law in doing this.

As restaurants in general are now so clearly intent on competing on the price of food, while hiding the price of wine on which they make more profit, there is clearly no incentive for any restaurant to break rank and distribute markups more evenly.  A good first step towards encouraging competition on wine pricing would be effective enforcement of existing consumer legislation.

I don’t particularly want to shop my offending local restaurants to Trading Standards, but I am tempted.  Not because I feel particularly vindictive to those restaurants, but because the couple of places that do display their wine lists have very reasonable markups – and I’d like to see them get more trade.

Aladdin, Withington

529 Wilmslow Road, Withington, Manchester, M20 4BA. Tel 0161 4348558
www.aladdin.org.uk

Let’s face it – a lot of money is not spent on the decor – outside or inside.  Most people who just happen to be walking past seem to think it is just another kebab takeaway. But go inside and you will probably find a busy and bustling restaurant.  It certainly will be weekend evenings, and often midweek too. On average I have been here something like a couple of times a month for the last few years, so any negative comments here should be seen in that light – I wouldn’t go so often if I didn’t really like the place. Here’s why I like it…

Very high up on my list of reasons is BYO with only £1 corkage.  For me, that means I can take one or two decent bottles of wine and not have to pay through the nose for the pleasure.  Unless you feel you can get by with the Paris goblets they provide, you will need to bring your own glasses.  Don’t be shy – they don’t bat an eyelid.

And I like the informal and friendly atmosphere.  Unlike many of the trendier restaurants a bit further South, which seem always to be packed with the Didsbury Set, you get many different types of people here.   It seems so much more inclusive and inviting like that.  Sometimes you even get a bunch of wine nuts making the most of the BYO policy and enjoying interesting wines with the food.

Ah yes – the food.  The restaurant describes the cuisine as “authentic Arabic and Middle Eastern”, and I have heard it described variously as Syrian and Lebanese by those who claim to know.   Maybe I am not as enthusiastic about the food as many people, but I like it well enough.  And I know the menu so well now I can easily navigate it to find the meal I want.  Most people seem to agree that the starters are the best part of the menu, and the best value for money.  For mains I like the shaworma, maklobeh, and the kebabs best – particularly the chicken kebab.  I find the sauce in many of the casserole style mains not to be wine-friendly, and the one time I ordered fish it came back so over-cooked I wouldn’t dream of ordering it again.  The two of us would typically order 4 starters to share, and then share one main with rice and a salad.   Normally I do without dessert, but their pastries are good.  See the menu on their website for details and prices.  Officially they have a £15 minimum charge, but it is quite likely your bill will be less than that and it has never been a problem for me.  I really like the feeling of being pleasantly surprised by the size of the bill, and wanting to tip well rather than feeling under an obligation.

If I were asked for wine recommendations for Aladdin food, in broad brush terms I would suggest a Riesling of almost any style, or a spicy medium-bodied red.  Chateau Musar, red or white, would also be an excellent choice.  The food is subtly spiced, and not at all hot, so wine matching is usually not too difficult if you avoid the more acidic dishes.

Here are a few more sources for more reviews on Aladdin: Restaurant-Guide, sugarvine and tripadvisor.  Most of them seem to ring true.  A couple of the comments on tripadvisor are interesting though.  I too have experienced a horrendous and totally unacceptable delay getting into the restaurant, despite the fact we had booked.  But it has only happened once to me – it was a Saturday and I do not usually go that day.  Maybe it will happen less often now they have expanded the upstairs part of the restaurant?

Update 01/02/20: Not need to worry about queues now. Although the food is as good as ever, there are sadly a lot fewer customers, and only the old part of the restaurant is regularly used. I guess it has fallen out of fashion.

Cooking with corked wines

Can you do it? Let me come clean and say you are not going to get a straightforward answer here. But if you want to be confused at a more profound level you have come to the right place.

I have personal experience of using a badly corked wine to deglaze a pan, so I know that does not work. I was hoping the heat would evaporate the TCA, but the resulting sauce was disgustingly corky. I mentioned this on a wine forum, where it was pointed out that fats bind the TCA and no amount of subsequent heat would get rid of it. I later discovered that cream is sometimes used to clean up corked wine on a large scale.  The cream attracts the TCA and is then removed by filtration.

It was suggested on the forum that if you are going to use corked wine for cooking it is important to drive off the TCA by boiling it before allowing it near animal fats. Since then that is what I have done, and with positive results. It has not yet really been a strong test of the theory because I have only tried it with mildly corked wines, but it seems others too have had success by boiling first.

There’s only one small problem with this. Contrary to what most people seem to think, TCA is not very volatile. In fact its boiling point is about 250°C at atmospheric pressure, and below 60°C it is actually solid. So on the face of it, boiling wine is going to concentrate the TCA because there will be less alcohol and water after boiling.

But it is more complex than that even.  TCA is soluble in ethanol, but not very soluble in water. So as the wine is heated, the alcohol will boil off before the water, and the TCA previously dissolved in the alcohol will be thrown out of solution.  And it seems that as the liquid cools below 60°C it will precipitate as a solid. That might explain why boiled corked wine does not smell of TCA. But then wouldn’t fats from cooking redissolve the TCA and make things taste nasty again?

There are another couple of possibilities that might explain why boiling works. One is steam distillation, which will allow a liquid to boil off below its normal boiling point, though I am not really sure I understand how much agitation is required to expose some of the minute quantities of TCA to the surface to allow this to happen. The other is that heat may cause TCA to undergo a chemical reaction that results in a less nasty reaction product.

Ultimately, if boiling corked wine works it works, but I personally don’t think I have enough evidence yet.  It does not happen to me often, but next time I have a  moderately or badly corked wine that I cannot return I shall try boiling it for use in cooking.  If you do the same, let me know how you get on.  Also if you have any theoretical contributions.  Science will not advance itself.

Update 28/03/12:  I have since seen that several people have reported successfully using corked wine for cooking in various ways, including deglazing pans to make a sauce.  It occurs to me now that maybe the important factors are how badly corked the wine is to start with, and how strong the other flavours in the sauce are.  Also, in my bad expeience I think I reduced the sauce a lot, thinking I was driving off the corkiness, but that maybe concentrated the TCA, as you might expect bearing in mind its boiling point.

When wine tastes best

For me the answer is… root days!

And isn’t that what you might expect if you subscribe to a rather literal interpretation of the importance of terroir? Or could it just be that the whole idea is a load of bollocks? I am of course talking about the biodynamic theory that lunar cycles affect the taste of wine, fruit days being the most auspicious.

Here’s what I did to test the hypothesis. I analysed all 568 of my tasting note scores from last year. The scores range from 1 to 6, corresponding to the number of stars in my rating system. At the time of tasting I was unaware of the type of day. I used this 2009 biodynamic calendar for the analysis. I presume it is reasonably accurate. I did check a few days against another calendar, and they were in agreement. I have no idea at what time the type of day changes on any particular date, but as I could not find this information and very few people seem to care, I decided to ignore the issue. Most  wines would have been tasted at some time in the evening. If you want to reanalyse my raw data feel free. In the meantime, here is my summary of scores awarded on each type of day .

Mean Std Dev Number tasted
Fruit 3.02 1.209 94
Leaf 3.28 1.057 102
Root 3.30 1.020 184
Flower 3.09 1.125 188

So, if anything, I think wines taste best on root days, and worst on fruit days. But actually there are barely any significant differences at all. A one-way ANOVA test gives a p-value of 0.091 level. Or to put it another way, one would expect to get such a large spread in the means about one time in ten purely from random variation.

As far as I am concerned I got pretty much the results I expected, and I don’t feel any need to research this issue further.  To be frank I think I have already given this nonsense a lot more time than it deserves. However, if you have any more evidence to bring to light I’d be interested in seeing it.  But please – no more anecdotes about tasting wines when you were aware what sort of day it was.  And no half-baked argument along the lines of “if Tesco believe in it, there must be something in it”.  Hard data only.

Or perhaps you could explain from a theoretical point of view why this agricultural calendar has any relevance at all for wine tasting.  Why should fruit days be any better than, say, Fridays – which is when I think wine tastes best.

Posh Nosh

When Posh Nosh was first broadcast I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think I managed to catch the full set of episodes. So I was delighted when I recently stumbled across them on YouTube.  Great acting from Richard E Grant and Arabella Weir, as they gently satirise a certain type of foodie TV programme and provide insights into their characters’ private lives.  Here’s the full series.  Keep an eye out for the tasting notes.

1 Fish & Chips

2 Birthday Parties

3 Paella

5 Bread & Butter Pudding

6 Leftovers

7 Sauces

4 Beautiful Food

8 Comfort Food