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Getting Pairing Down to a Science

The molecular approach to wine pairing proposed by one of Ferran Adrià’s collaborators intrigues F&W’s Ray Isle—especially when his own cooking experiments show that it actually works.

Until recently, I never thought of eating raspberries with nori. And I certainly never thought of pairing nori-wrapped raspberries with Cabernet. But then, I’m not François Chartier.

Chartier is a French-Canadian sommelier and the author of the book Taste Buds and Molecules, released earlier this year in the US. Now a consultant for restaurants around the world, the man has substantial avant-garde credibility: He collaborated with Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, one of the godfathers of molecular cuisine, on the 2009 and 2010 menus at Adrià’s famed El Bulli, and when Adrià’s new research center, the El Bulli Foundation, opens in 2014, Chartier is slated to run seminars on aroma there. The book is the culmination of six years of research on why some foods and wines go together well, and why other ones don’t. There are plenty of books out there about pairing, but Chartier’s approach is different—in fact, it’s so radically different that it’s either groundbreaking or completely crazy.

Chartier’s basic idea is that the aromatic molecules in certain wines and foods act as sensory bridges. So, for instance, raspberries and nori go together well because the aromas of both are dominated by the compound beta-ionone, which also appears in Cabernet Sauvignons, among other red wines. Raspberries, nori and Cabernet go well together on a molecular level, and our sense of smell picks up on it. That we perceive their similarities aromatically is particularly significant because most of what we think of as flavor—what makes a raspberry taste like a raspberry, in this case—comes from our sense of smell. The tongue only picks up sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, tartness and umami (a Japanese term for what could roughly be called savoriness).

As someone whose primary agenda is to get people less stressed out about wine and food, not more, my initial reaction to Taste Buds and Molecules was weariness. I mean, come on—before I head outside to grill a steak, do I really need to know that grass-fed beef is rich in skatole, a molecule in the indole family that is also found in orange blossoms, jasmine and beets? Or that the Gewürztraminer I’ve just opened smells the way it does because it’s full of linalool, geraniol, camphene, neral and limonene? On top of that, Chartier’s prose isn’t exactly lively. The book is full of lines like, “Syringol is a phenol that comes from the burning of wood, resulting in spicy, smoky, vanilla and medicinal aromas.” Perhaps the hearts of chemists beat faster when reading this; for most people, it’s the verbal equivalent of Ambien.

Still, Chartier’s overarching premise is compelling. What wines go with what foods has always been largely a matter of opinion—I like Chianti with my pizza; you’d rather have Champagne. Principles (a better word than rules) tend to be broad, as in, “If you can squeeze a lemon on it, you can pour a tart white wine with it,” with the rationale more or less limited to, “because it tastes better that way.” We all know lamb goes nicely with thyme, but the idea that the combination works because both contain thymol is not one that ever occurred to me. (Of course, there are limits—Listerine also contains thymol, but I’m not about to start serving lamb chops with Listerine sauce.)

More important is that there’s a practical backbone to the book. In fact, when I spoke to Chartier on the phone, he himself suggested skipping most of the writing at first and concentrating on the charts. These simply list which ingredients and wines have an affinity for each other.

“It’s like an iPhone,” he said. “You don’t have to understand how an iPhone works to play with one. In the same way, perhaps you’ll say, ‘Tonight I will make a fillet of fish. Let’s try to make a synergy to go with Sauvignon Blanc.’ ” Glance at the charts in the book, Chartier suggests, and “instead of making mashed potatoes—even if you make the best mashed potatoes in the world—serve parsnips with a tarragon-infused olive oil. And then everything on your plate will go with your Sauvignon Blanc, and everything will go together.”

François Chartier’s molecular approach to wine pairing.
Art © Alex Nabaum.

In other words, you don’t have to know the underlying molecular reason why the parsnip pairing will work (basically, because the estragole in the tarragon and the menthol in the parsnips are echoed in the Sauvignon Blanc) to enjoy it.

All of which sounds great on paper. But if Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t actually taste good with tarragon and parsnips, then you can throw around all the menthols and estragoles you want, and it won’t make a difference. So, to put Chartier’s principles to the test, I marched into the F&W Test Kitchen and asked Marcia Kiesel if she could create a dish with salmon, black coffee and Chinese five-spice powder—a combination Chartier suggests would pair with Zinfandel.

She gave me her patented “That’s sort of an odd request” look and asked why. I duly explained, and Marcia gave me an ever-so-slight lift of one eyebrow. “Zinfandel and salmon,” she said. “That should be interesting.”

It was clear that by “interesting” Marcia meant “god-awful.” But according to Chartier—the dish was his idea—“Coffee beans are rich in volatile pyrazine compounds, especially dimethylpyrazines, as are some red wines, especially ones aged in oak.” The cloves in the five-spice work the same way. Plus, the coffee would moderate the tannins in the wine, making it good with the fish. I explained this to Marcia and got an even more pronounced lift of the eyebrow. But she went ahead and made the dish, and we tasted it with a fairly powerful Russian River Valley Zin from Dutton-Goldfield.

“That’s very good,” Marcia said. She was right. The sauce seemed to amplify the fruit of the wine and cut back on its tannins at the same time. It was a combination that never would have occurred to me, and it worked beautifully. Indeed, the sauce would make almost any kind of meat or seafood taste good with a relatively oaky, full-bodied, New World red.

But Marcia’s a professional cook; she can make almost anything taste so delicious you don’t even care what wine you have with it. I, on the other hand, am a home cook. Since a big part of Chartier’s point is that anyone can play with molecular pairing, I figured I might as well test out his theory myself.

According to one of Chartier’s charts, both juniper and rosemary are ideal matches for Riesling, especially older Rieslings (lots of terpenes in all three). So I braised a couple pounds of lamb shoulder—something I would normally pair with a substantial red—together with a small handful of ground juniper berries and about a tablespoon of chopped rosemary, throwing some peeled fingerling potatoes into the braise about an hour before it was done. Then I served it with a 2005 Hugel Riesling Jubilee.

The combination was good. In fact, it was startlingly good, primarily because the aromatics of the Riesling went incredibly well with the resinous, piney notes of the juniper and rosemary. It was as if they had always been meant to go together—which, of course, is Chartier’s point.

Chartier claims that his approach can make things easier for the home cook. I’d say this is debatable, since the easiest thing anyone can do with regard to pairing food and wine is simply not worry about it. Most wines go with most foods quite pleasantly. Nonetheless, reading Taste Buds and Molecules was exhilarating in that it made me more inclined to challenge my own pairing instincts. In other words, it inspired me to mess around. With my lamb, in the past, I would have defaulted to a Syrah, a Rhône-Grenache blend or another big, rich red that would balance the heartiness of the dish. And that would have been fine, or even better than fine. But the ’05 Riesling made me think: If rosemary works so well with Riesling, what about a rosemary–olive oil cake with a sweet Auslese Riesling from Germany? For a home cook, this kind of exploration is fun.

But Chartier is definitely wrong on one thing. I am absolutely certain I am never going to find a wine that tastes good with raspberries wrapped in nori—because I cannot stand nori. There are some problems that even the world’s greatest molecular pairing specialist can’t solve.

video Video: Expert Wine Pairing Advice

Published September 2012
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