How Food and Wine Matches Work

Revisiting the groundbreaking book Taste Buds and Molecules
Feb 20, 2012

It is worth casting a skeptical eye on received wisdom about wine. So much of what we think we know turns out to be wrong. Early in my gastronomic career I grabbed the wrong glass and inadvertently took a sip of red wine with my grilled salmon, only to find that it made better music in my mouth than the white wine next to it. That called into question one of wine’s hoariest myths (white wine with fish). The day I twisted off a cap of a 10-year-old Riesling, I discovered a gorgeously aged white wine that disproved the widely believed notion that screw-capped wines can’t age.

Received wisdom takes a beating in Taste Buds and Molecules by François Chartier. An English-language translation (Wiley, $37) has now been published for the first time in the United States. Based in Montreal and nicknamed the “molecular sommelier,” Chartier questions everything we think we know about matching wine and food. With my imperfect French I could get the gist from the French-language edition, published in 2010, and from interviews I did with him in English. But seeing the book in English is the real eye-opener. It opens up whole new worlds of food and wine possibilities.

Curious about why certain wines resonate with some foods and not with others, Chartier did his own groundbreaking research into what they had in common chemically. The information was not easy to find. No one had ever pulled it all together before. What he discovered was a universe of similarities at the molecular level that make, for example, the aromatics of anise, mint and oregano so perfectly compatible with Sauvignon Blanc. Or why mature white wines and Sauternes have affinities with curry, figs and, surprisingly, maple syrup.

The chapter on oak caught my eye. So many uninformed experts tell us that we must avoid wines with noticeable oak flavors at the table because they clash with food. Chartier proves otherwise. First, he describes the process of toasting barrels and the chemical compounds the process produces. These include malitol (which has the aroma of caramel), eugenol (identical to the primary aromatic in cloves), and lactones (found in coconuts and apricots). Also, a family of chemicals called furfurols, produced in abundance during malolactic fermentation.

His list of “complementary foods for barrel-raised wines” includes anything cooked on a grill or flavored with smoke (which may explain why oaky wines are so popular in California, where we eat a lot of grilled and smoked foods), and anything flavored with spices such as cardamom or clove, but also coffee, Madeira, tea or walnuts.

Chartier spent years visiting Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler of El Bulli restaurant in Spain, working with them at the restaurant before it closed last year. In their warm foreword for the book, impressed by Chartier’s audacious mixture of science and taste, they call him “the number one expert on flavors” they know.

When the French-language edition came out, Chartier and I spent a couple of days tweaking foods to match with wines. Most memorably, he showed how simply infusing coconut into a sauce created a link with a distinctly oaky red wine. That compatibility wasn’t there without the (adjusted) sauce.

The book is full of nuggets like that, amply backed by science and formidable taste experience. If the chemical names seem daunting, just peruse the graphics. They can open whole new worlds of food-and-wine pairings for any of us. Typically, the hand-drawn illustrations focus on a particular family of chemicals found in both wine and food, grouped around the center. Linked to each aromatic chemical are foods and ingredients that contain it. In effect, they’re interchangeable in finding affinities between the food and wine containing them.

Anyone who cares about wine-and-food matching must study this book. It’s ingenious. Amazingly, this accomplishment only scratches the surface. So many more chemicals, food and wine types remain to be explored. But this is a phenomenal start.

Pairings

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