Everyone has favorite food-and-wine combinations. Ever wonder why they’re so good? Having spent a good part of my dinnertimes pondering that very question, I thought I had come up with some pretty good answers. But François Chartier went beyond mere pondering and into some serious research. He might just have the keys to creating great wine-and-food matches more consistently.
I only heard about Chartier last week because I was listening to As It Happens, the Canadian news program that many U.S. public radio stations carry. When the announcer said, “A Montreal sommelier's award-winning cookbook reveals the molecular relationships between food and wine,” my ears perked up.
I liked what I heard from him. He had clearly done his homework, combed the scientific literature for specific answers to the generalities most of us offer, and come up with a remarkably useful and clear-eyed approach to this question. Besides, the food-and-wine relationships he was talking about jibed with my own experience.
Chartier, 45, has been writing books and blogs in French since his battle with multiple sclerosis curtailed his days as a restaurant sommelier. Published last year, his book Papilles et Molécules (which translates to “Taste Buds and Molecules”) spells out his theories about flavor bridges and the research that supports them. Although my French is shaky, Chartier’s heavily accented English got us through a phone interview in which I asked him to explain some of his ideas before an English-language version, to be titled Scents and Sensibility, arrives later this year. (Pupilles is published by Les Éditions Presse in Canada.)
What started Chartier on this track was his dissatisfaction of one of the most classic of food-and-wine matches, the French blue cheese Roquefort with the sweet dessert wine Sauternes. “Château d’Yquem was always great, but with other Sauternes sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t,” he recalled. “With Roquefort, I always seemed to like higher-alcohol wines such as Port, or richer-textured wines such as Alsace Gewürztraminer sélections des grains nobles better, even beer.”
The answer, he discovered, was in the molecules. “You won’t find the same family of aromatic compounds in Sauternes and in the cheese, but you will (find it) in Port, in beer, and SGNs,” he discovered. “There’s the explanation for why the match with Sauternes was not always as good as it should be.” The key molecules were those in the acetyl group (diacetyl, acetone), which make butter taste like butter. They don't rise to the fore in most Sauternes, only in the richest ones that see the most oak, such as Yquem. But you do find them in Port, Alsace SGNs and beer.
“We forget that aromatic compounds are part of the structure,” added Chartier, who is experimenting for his next book on how tannins in wine react with food. “We take care of the other structural elements of wine, among them acidity, bitterness, sweetness, texture, alcohol and temperature, but there could be 800 aromatic compounds in a glass of wine. They do the job of building the bridges between food and wine, and also on the plate between the elements of a dish.”
Next, in Part 2: Specific Solutions
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO — February 23, 2010 2:28pm ET
Pascal Comeau — Montreal, Quebec — February 23, 2010 10:42pm ET
Daniel Bourgeois — Saint jean sur Richelieu — February 24, 2010 7:42am ET
Pacific Rim Winemakers — Portland, OR — February 24, 2010 2:13pm ET
Brian Byers — Winnipeg, MB — February 25, 2010 12:36am ET
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