Warts and all

Have you ever wondered why you so rarely seem to see negative reviews of wines?  Or indeed other things?  I am very much aware that the first few reviews on my blog have tended to be positive, so I shall start by answering for myself.

Initially at least, I decided only to write about what I know well, and by and large that is what I have done – certainly my restaurant reviews and longer tasting notes have been for restaurants and wines I am very familiar with.  I didn’t want to be proclaiming judgements based on one meal, or a quick slurp and a spit.  But unfortunately a by-product of that policy is that I have only written in detail about things that I like.  I try to show dedication to my blog, but I draw the line at repeating bad experiences just so I can say with conviction that it was truly bad.

The other reason I might feel tempted to put a positive spin on a wine on a wine that was not great, or more likely say nothing at all, is if I know and like the person that supplied it to me.  I hope using the word “supplied” does not sound too much like having a drug habit fed; I use it to cover both being offered wine by a friend, and being sold wine.  Naturally I do not want to sound ungrateful for freely offered wine, and criticising it in public might be taken as ingratitude, but to a lesser extent I find myself reluctant to criticise wine sold by a merchant I know well.  Though having said that, the careful reader of this blog will find some examples of the latter.

As for other critics… well, I know of at least one who thinks that there are so many bad and mediocre wines it is not worth writing about them, and even listing them it seems.  The consumer of tasting notes is thought only to be interested in hearing about good wines.  I am not at all sure about that.  If someone else has tried a wine and found it to be bad, I would rather not buy it myself to make the discovery independently.  And if no one mentions a wine, how am I meant to know whether it is of poor quality, or simply not assessed?

This is also frustrating for the consumer when reading the results of large wine competitions.  We get to know the wines with trophies, medals and commendations, but how are we to know whether DRC again neglected to submit the requisite number of bottles of La Tâche, or it was judged to be unworthy even of a commendation? And this is where I start to get cynical.  Such a large proportion of wines get medals that to be unclassified is not at all good.  And no producer would want to go to the expensive of entering a competition with the possibility of being slighted like that.  So if the competition published the failures, they would not get get anywhere near the number of contestants and probably the competition would not be viable.

To an extent I think the same applies when writers get sent samples or invited on a jolly – er, sorry, fact finding mission – to a wine producing region.  If there were too many bad reviews the offers of samples and trips would slowly dry up – in general, if not for individual writers.  I am not accusing anyone of professional misconduct here, but I think we have to accept that however hard writers and critics strive to be independent it is hard to be totally objective when your livelihood depends on freebies.  Besides which, as I have noted above, it is really difficult to be critical about a product that is associated with someone you have got to know, like the producer you met on that trip.  I think it is also fair to admit that we as consumers of wine writing get what we pay for.  It is all to easy these to expect to get opinions for free on the net, but those who give their opinions for free need the means to get hold of things to write about.

I am sure that part of the knack of getting the truth from a tasting note or more general review  lies in looking for what has not been said, but that sadly is still a bit like looking for wines that do not have medals.  Did the critic not mention the intensity of flavour because it was insipid, or because he did not think it worthwhile commenting on?  Or perhaps it was not intense, but had an understated elegance?  We will never know.

Another trick in tasting note deconstruction is to look at the score.  I did not realise it until it was explained to me, but apparently a score of below 90 means that a wine is not recommended, while anything you should consider buying will be in the range 90 to 100.  But sadly that now means that some critics are reluctant to give 89 points – so even the points cannot always be used as a coded hint that a wine is under-par.

But you can still get some glimpses of warts.  The blind panel tastings in Decanter for example.  There, often you will find first growths and similar summarily dismissed in favour of more modest wines. What I miss there though is an explanation of the thought processes of the taster.  Of course, better wines need more time to come around, but shouldn’t professionals be able to recognise a young but promising wine from a good stable?

Cachumba, West Didsbury

Note that Cachumba no longer exists. I am keeping this merely for historical interest.

220 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester, M20 2LW. Tel 0161 4452479

Cachumba is self-styled on its website as a “Cafe & Take Away”. It certainly does a fair amount of take-away business, but apart from that I’d describe it more as an informal restaurant.  Food is brought to you at your table, though the menus are slipped under the practical glass that covers all the tables at each place setting.   Service, like the restaurant, is informal and friendly.  Be prepared to wait a while for your food if they are busy.

It may look closed, but don’t be fooled – if it’s earlyish evening, then it is probably open despite appearances.  But in marked contrast to most surrounding restaurants and bars, which parade themselves with open doors and outside tables, Cachumba keeps itself to itself.  Behind the screens in the window is a lush red haven, with soft music that is as eclectic as the food. It is a world apart from the currently trendy minimalistic style – a world that is more gentle, and inhabited by a rare, quiet sub-species of West Didsburyite.

It is difficult to describe the style of food, as it comes from around the world.  The focus, if focus is the word for such a vast area, is South and South-East Asia, but there is at least one African dish on the menu too.  Take a look at the menu on their website.  I have my favourites, but I know others that prefer other dishes so I won’t bother recommending anything in particular.  Vegetarians are well catered for. You may wonder, as I did, if it is possible to do justice to such a broad range of cuisines in one small restaurant.  Maybe it is not, and I wouldn’t like to vouch for the food’s authenticity, but it tastes great.  In particular, I am always struck by the vivacity of the flavours, presumably the result of everything being freshly cooked with fresh spices, and I always leave with a pleasant tingling sensation in my mouth.  And I never leave feeling overwhelmed by the heavy greasy sauces that are all too common in Indian restaurants in the UK.

All your dishes will by default be brought to your table more or less simultaneously, so if that does not suit be prepared to ask specifically for staggered servings. The portions are not huge, so you should probably think in terms of a couple of dishes each.  Though having said that, the portion sizes seemed generally larger than normal when I was there last a week ago, and the Vietnamese prawn fried rice dish was huge.

With spicy food, I would naturally tend towards aromatic white wine – well non-Chardonnay whites at least.  It is obvious that the wines were all obtained from Vin Vino, and very modestly marked up.  For example I see that you can buy the Solare Falanghina for £6.30 retail, and you can get it at Cachumba for only £8.95.   Recently I have usually been going for the Kirabo South African Chenin Blanc.  You won’t see it on the wine list on their website, but it is £9.95 (£6.90 retail).  I didn’t take a tasting note, but I remember it being crisp and apply. At various points in the past year or so I have also liked the Falanghina and the Gewurz, but did not get on with the Pinot Grigio – I think they are the ones they currently sell but cannot be 100% sure.  Anyway, Cachumba gets top marks for reasonably priced wines, and top marks for displaying their wine list in the window.  It used to be BYO, but sadly no more.

All in all I would highly recommend Cachumba.  Great food, friendly and relaxed, and a reasonably priced wine list.  I find it strange that it is always as quiet as it is, and think it deserves more recognition than it gets.  If you don’t believe me, here are reviews on sugarvine and onionring.

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.

More Massaya

Just after my last post on the wines of Massaya I learned that a local wine merchant, Reserve, was to hold a tasting of Massaya wines with Ramzi Ghosn. On the night Ramzi turned out to be Sami, but everything else went according to plan.  Here are some brief notes by way of a postscript to my earlier article.

I did not like the Blanc and Rosé wines at all.  We tried the 2009s.  The white was not oxidised like the 2005 reported on earlier, but lacking in acidity and fruit.  I also found it slightly astringent.  The Rosé tasted spirity, and both were a pretty hefty 13.5%.  In marked contrast to how Musar present their whites, even Sami seemed to be quite keen to pass over these wines quickly and move onto the proper stuff.  Some people at the tasting liked the Rosé, but I give both these wines a pretty miserable *

Then we moved onto the Classic Red 2007 – my house red, which I wrote about at length in my last post on Massaya.  On Thursday I was missing the chocolate and coffee notes I often get, but otherwise it was the wine I know and love, so ***

If someone had told me that the Silver Selection 2005 was a Claret I think I would have believed them, even though the blend was dominated by Grenache.  It was a good solid wine with decent dark fruit, acidity and tannin.  Excellent length, with a spicy finish.  Not unpleasant to drink now, and a bit more accessible than the 2004 it seems, but I would ideally keep this one several years.  More than a tad of Brett, but it added to the wine rather than detracted ***

We then tried 3 Gold Reserve vintages: 2005, 2001 and 2000.  The 2005 was another good solid dark fruit wine, that ideally needs more time ****.  I could easily imagine that in 4 years time it would evolve into something like the 2001, which was lovely, and ripe for drinking in my opinion.  The 2001 had started to develop mature notes, and the tannins were smoothing out to create what was quite a classy wine.  Again perhaps a tad Bretty, but pleasantly so. For the 2001 I’d give *****.  I did not like the 2000, but others in the room did not see anything wrong with it.  I thought it was starting to fall apart.  The aromatics were dominated by Brett, there was little fruit, and alcohol and tannin dominated the palate **

These wines were only available on special order from Reserve, but for the record here are the prices: £12.50 for the Blanc, Rosé and Classic Red; £17.00 for the Silver Selection; and around £30.00 for the Gold Reserve vintages.  Average market prices for these wines are in my opinion on the high side, and these prices are definitely top end of the market.  But at the rock bottom levels of  Hailsham Cellars I think you get value for money.  It seems that Athur Rackham, where I bought my Classic Red for £7.50, has gone out of business 🙁

Six suggestions for wine tasting hosts

 

The level of hospitality shown by producers is often very high, and I am grateful to them all.  However some tastings offered could be even better, and with very little effort and cost.  For all wine producers who host wine tastings for small groups, here are 6 things that are sometimes neglected.  Please don’t see them as demands, but as suggestions to be considered if you want to present yourself in the best possible light.

  1. A comfortable environment.  Outside can work, but often it is too hot, cold or windy.   Usually inside  – with a cool temperature and good lighting –  is best.
  2. Somewhere to rest glass and notebook .  A place to sit is nice, but I’d much rather stand by a bar-height table or ledge than have a chair with no table.
  3. A white surface, to show the colour of the wine.  If the table top is white that’s great.  If not, something like a sheet of A4 paper would be fine.
  4. Basic information about each wine.  The official designation, vineyard if on the label, the grape variety or blend, vintage, alcohol content. Give the information clearly, and repeat it.  Leave the bottle with us after pouring so we can see the label.
  5. Good access to spitoons.  And not just for emptying glasses – even amateurs sometimes want to spit.
  6. Serviette, or sheet of paper towel.  There are nearly always dribbles of wine to be dealt with.

I cannot emphasise point 4 enough.  You the producer are familiar with your wines, and are very keen to let us taste and give us more detailed information about the wine, but if we do not get the basic information all is lost.  Remember language barriers, and the fact that it might not be so easy to hear at the far end of the room.  In fact I would sugggest that, if at all possible, you  provide a sheet of information customised to the particular tasting you are giving us.  You could prepare a computer file with all your current releases, and delete the wines not being offered before printing it out.

Wines of Massaya, Lebanon

The one I have most experience of is their Classic Red,  a lot of experience in fact. For the last couple of years the 2005 and 2007 have been my house red. It’s a Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah blend – 60% Cinsault and 20% each of the other two – and usually retails for around £10.00.  (I got mine for a case price of £7.50 from Arthur Rackham, but their website is now down so I am not sure they are still trading.) Looking back over my tasting notes for the past couple of years I cannot see any consistent variation with vintage or age, so I will present a composite tasting note of both vintages, drunk some 3 or 4 years after the vintage year. It can be a tad rubbery and sulphurous, a tendency possibly exacerbated by its screwcap closure, so I usually give it a good shot of oxygen by inverting the open bottle over a carafe, letting the wine freely glug and splash around. Don’t worry about the sediment; there is none. Then if convenient I leave the wine for a couple of hours or so in the carafe before drinking, and that deals with the problem.  In appearance I’d describe it as medium intense mid-red. Holding the glass to my nose, the first impression is a hit of aromatic red fruit, which along with the corresponding impact on the palate, is very attractive. And looking beyond that,  there is a lot more interest: spice and, more intriguingly, chocolate and coffee notes, again on both the nose and palate. All with good intensity and length. Add to that appropriate acidity and astringency, and you have a mouth-watering food wine that is decent/excellent value at £10.00/£7.50.  On the right day this gets four stars, but usually ***

Silver Selection is the next step up in the Massaya range. I have tried a couple of vintages of this red, but only one bottle of each: in 2008 I tasted the 2004, and in 2009 the 1999. They represent a definite improvement in quality, and the 1999 was a beautiful mature wine with fine-grained tannins. The 2004 was hard and quite astringent, but had a delicate floral nose and I’m sure a few more years would have knocked off the hard edges. The Silver Selection blend is Grenache 40%, Cinsault 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Mourvedre 15%. Expect to pay around £14.00. 10 years after the vintage is probably about right for drinking, but I’d give both vintages ****

The Gold Reserve is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre. This, like the Silver Selection, was under cork. I tried the 2004 vintage in 2009, and it was far too young. It could well turn into something beautiful, and it had all the hallmarks of a good wine – intensity of fruit etc, etc – but I cannot honestly say I enjoyed it that much. As you might know, Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite variety, so that might have had something to do with it.  £20.00 to £30.00 for this one. For potential: ***

The only other wines produced by Massaya are white and rosé versions of the Classic range. I tried the 2005 white in 2009, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Obeideh. Prices are similar to the Classic Red. It could have been intended as a stylistic thing, but this was oxidised, and I did not like it. *

www.massaya.com

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.