What makes a good wine-and-food match? “I want a harmony,” said François Chartier, the sommelier-turned-writer with some great insights into how wine and food work together. “I don’t want the wine to disappear next to the food, or the food to disappear next to the wine. I want the wine and the food both to stay there with no off tastes, no bitterness, a good companionship. When it works, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.”
Chartier thinks the best way to accomplish that is through molecular links between the food and the wine. As some of us have maintained for years, it’s usually not the main ingredient that drives the match. Often it’s something aromatic in the seasoning or the sauce, or the smoke in grilling, or the caramelization of sautéing.
That certainly has been my experience. As Chartier noted, the most prominent flavor in chicken in tarragon sauce isn’t the poultry, it’s the herbs. For him, those flavors make the dish harmonize with Sauvignon Blanc. Tempting as it is to generalize that herbal flavors go well with the herbal flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, it’s really more specific than that.
At the molecular level, Chartier explained, the relevant chemical link centers on a specific family of herbs, which includes tarragon, mint, fennel, chervil and basil. They all rely on aromatic esters called anethols, which are prominent in defining their specific flavors. So do Sauvignon Blanc wines, and that creates a synergy. Other wines that center on anethols for their flavor profiles include Grüner Veltliner, Greco di Tufo, Albariño and cool-climate Chardonnays such as Chablis.
Knowing this opens up possibilities at both ends of the match. No tarragon? Use basil, or chervil, which will match up well with the same wine. And in choosing a wine, you don’t have to be limited to Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc. Look to Austria for Grüner, Italy for Greco or Spain for Albariño. (The chart in Chartier's book, Papilles et Molécules, lists 15 categories of white wines in this family, and a dozen reds.)
There are plenty of books that list the principal aromatic chemicals in various wines, and others that do so for plants and other foods, but when he started his research, Chartier found nothing that correlated them. So he enlisted the help of scientists who had the information in their libraries, and painstakingly put the information together. He also went to visit Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef famous for a cuisine that innovatively applies science. Although Adrià doesn’t use the term, his style has been dubbed molecular cuisine. Hence Chartier’s moniker as the “molecular sommelier.”
Researching the herb rosemary, Chartier discovered several compounds related to terpenes, a chemical family also found in Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. But rosemary is associated with Mediterranean cuisines, and wines made from those grapes are made further north in Alsace, Germany and Northern Italy. When he tried the northern wines with food flavored with the sunnier herb, it worked.
“Each time I tried it, the matching was fabulous,” he reported. “Especially with Riesling.”
In a serious blow to the oaky-wines-don’t-go-with-food crowd, Chartier also discovered that certain foods absolutely love the character oak imparts to a wine. For example, tasting notes often mention flavors such as coffee, clove and bittersweet chocolate in oak-aged reds. The chemicals responsible in part for those flavors also occur in seared meat. “That explains why oaky red wine is so good with steak,” Chartier argued.
Chartier recalls making a coffee salt by mixing fine grounds with sea salt, using it to season roast lamb. “It’s a great match with tannic young Cabernet,” he said. “Clove flavors in food are also friends of the barrique. So are red beets.”
Oak flavors also have an affinity for pork. That’s because the flavors of both pork and the oak influence on wine rely in part on a family of chemicals called lactones. (Lactones also impart the characteristic flavor of apricots, and pork tastes darned good cooked with apricots.)
Cutting-edge chefs do this sort of flavor association all the time. One of my favorite examples of such ingredient legerdemain substitutes watermelon for tomato in gazpacho. Both are fruits in the same family of plants, and their flavor profiles have several key molecules in common. And in fact, you can substitute raw watermelon for raw tomato in almost anything. Next summer, when they’re in season, try a few slices with fresh mozzarella and basil.
Why experiment like this? Because, Chartier said, when we understand why certain flavor combinations please us, we can find even more. “Ultimately we are looking for pleasure.”