Monday, March 15, 2010

Recommended Reading: Papilles et Molécules (Part 1)

What’s the question people ask a sommelier more often than any other? Easy: “What wine should I drink with this food?” (Very occasionally, it’s “What food should I eat with this wine?”)

Finding “that perfect wine” is complex. At school, we learn to consider a variety of factors in matching food and wine: aromas and flavours; acidity and tannins; sweet, spicy, salt, and umami; weight and texture. There’s the fattiness in the food and the oakyness of the wine. There’s the intensity and persistency of the flavours. Then, even with all that, there’s the choice between a match of similarities or of contrasts between the food and the wine. With practice and experience, finding better matches becomes instinctive.

Now, along comes François Chartier who brings a new and fascinating dimension to food and wine matching. Less well-known in the rest of Canada, M. Chartier is a household name in Québec, ever since being named “world’s best sommelier” at the Grand Prix Sopexa in 1994.

In his new book, Papilles et Molécules: La science aromatique des aliments et des vins [Tastebuds & Molecules: The Aromatic Science of Food and Wine], M. Chartier takes a page from the book of “molecular gastronomy”. He’s analysed the volatile compounds, those elements that give us aromas, in various foods and wines at the molecular level. The result is a new way to find commonalities between food and wine, and opens up innovative possibilities for better matching. What he offers us is nothing short of stunning, and sometimes very surprising.

M. Chartier presents his initial findings in 21 chapters, 16 of which are devoted to specific aromas and flavours such as anise and mint, pineapples and strawberries, clove, rosemary, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and others. He’s loyal to his home: the wonderful cheeses of Québec are there…as is maple syrup! There’s the heat of peppers and the “taste of cold”. He shows us the effect of oak-aging on aromas. With each ingredient, he takes us through the volatile aromatic compounds that give it its distinctiveness, and then matches it to wines that have those same compounds.

What does he come up with?

Take spicy foods, such as Thai, Sichuan, or Indian curry. M. Chartier shows us that one of the most common pairings, beer, is exactly the wrong choice. Carbonation augments the spiciness, rather than calming it. So unless you’re a masochist, forget the beer. What does work? M. Chartier recommends many full-bodied wines, whites and low-tannin reds. Many sommeliers will tell you to avoid high alcohol with spices. But M. Chartier argues that alcohol actually calms the spiciness, but only up to a point (14% ABV). And I can attest to that. Some years ago, I had lunch in an Indian restaurant in London. On the wine list was a Zinfandel and the waiter strongly recommended it to us. Yes, it was perfect with the spicy curry. It’s been my preferred match ever since. (Mind you, finding a Zin at less than 14% ABV gets harder every day.)

M. Chartier moves us away from another “classic” of long standing: lamb with Bordeaux reds. His analysis shows that lamb’s flavour comes from an aromatic compound that we also find in the red wines of Languedoc. That’s the match to go for.

I'll have more in my next post on this revolutionary book.

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