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Sommelier François Chartier on the Science of Aroma & Why Wine Pairing Is Not Subjective

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Photo: Isabelle Clément

The Wine & Culinary International Forum, the first-ever dedicated forum on the relationship between food and wine, was held two weeks ago in Barcelona. The one-day forum explored how sommeliers can use science to create better food and wine matches. Much of the science that sommeliers are now bringing to their field is François Chartier's, a former Canadian sommelier who has spent a decade creating a new scientific discipline that explores "aromatic synergies" and how they can inform food and wine pairing on a molecular level. His book Taste Buds and Molecules explores the theory that certain wines and certain food belong to specific aromatic families and just how these families can create more symbiotic pairings.

As Chartier began to explore his theory as it applies to dish creation, he joined Ferran Adrià at elBulli, where he spent more than two years collaborating on more than 50 new dishes. In part one of this two-part interview, Chartier talks about why he disagrees with the "drink what you like with the foods you like" theory, why aroma is more important than texture in pairing, how Ferran Adrià has influenced food and wine, and why science can create pleasure.

What do you think this first international forum on food and wine symbolizes for you and what you've done in this field?
I think now people are really trying to understand matching wine and food and they're asking "How can we have a better understanding of what we're doing?" People are starting to understand also that you cannot match wine and food if you know nothing about food. I have been reading since the early 90s and have been inspired by chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià and (as a sommelier). They changed the way I see my world. It's this idea of bringing new knowledge to what you are doing. It's mind opening. And much of what you see in food and wine now – this open-mindedness – it's because of elBulli and Ferran; people are starting to see that.

What exactly do you attribute to Ferran?
He was the first chef at the end of the 80s and early 90s that was open to working with other disciplines, and talking to physicists, with chemists and architects. He was trying to get outside the box. Today everyone is trying to get out of the box and see the work they do in a different way. And science is a great way, a great path, to that. You know, some people think that with science we will lose the fun part, the historic part, of food and wine. No, no. I play music and have always had great fun with it, but for the past five years I've been learning to read music and now the geometrics of jazz that I used to play one way, I can play hundreds of different ways. In doing so my pleasure is wide open. Science gives us this great pleasure and knowledge. That's why the new aromatic science I bring is attractive to people.

Is there an element of subjectivity in taste that might challenge your science?
It's important to have pleasure with friends and family when you drink wine and you eat but I completely disagree with people who say, "Drink what you love." This is completely crazy for me. So that means I can drink a Tia Maria (coffee liqueur) with fettucini alfredo? No, maybe you will but it's horrible. Matching wine and food is not subjective. If I told you tabouleh is really good with sauvignon blanc and you say, okay, but I don't like mint, that's the subjective part. But if I say, this is good together it's proved by science, it's not subjective. Same thing when a wine is tannic; you cannot say that it's supple. No. Maybe a difference in perception between us, but no one can say this is soft and the other is hard. If that is the case, it must be that one person must have a lack of knowledge.

One thing that sommeliers and consumers often rely on is the "what grows together goes together" as well as the time-honored food and wine traditions of certain regions. I read in an interview that you reject many of these ideas saying that they are spawn of historical necessity rather than attention to flavor synergy or science. But what's more important: a perfect match or understanding the food and wine culture of a region?
When I first started I wanted to understand the traditional matches – like, let's say Roquefort cheese and Sauternes. I'd open matching wine and food books that said this is always considered a great match, but I started to taste it and realized that, yes, sometimes it's good, but sometimes is very, very bad. So I said, this shouldn't be a final judgment. How can I work with my clients and be certain that the Sauternes will match with the Roquefort? Same with oysters and muscadet. Sometimes the muscadet is not as mineral, but more fruity in style, more commercial, and it can be a bad match with oysters. That was the turning point in my career. I said, okay I can't change the wine, but I can change the dish or help create the dish. So throughout the 1990s I worked with the chef to create dishes, and when I was doing that I realized that it's not always the beef or the fish that works with a wine, it's usually a "bridge ingredient" like black olive with syrah or mint and sauvignon blanc or ginger and gewurztraminer.

How did that knowledge change your path, so to speak?
I started to change my thinking and around 2002 I decide to quit everything – the wine tasting club, the restaurant – and took a year to see where I could take my knowledge. I knew okay, black olive and syrah goes together, but why? Syrah smells a little like black olive but it might be something more than that. So I went to scientists and asked them if they think it's a good idea to study the aromatic molecules of black olive and the syrah grape and to see why there's a power of attraction—or, what scientists call "aromatic synergy." And they said, "If you don't do it, I will."

Has understanding aromatic synergies changed your intuitions or reinforced them?
I don't want to say all traditional pairings are bad – some of them are good. Think about tabouleh. The Lebanese maybe they took ten years or 100 years or 1,000 years to find that perfect combination of fresh mint, parsley, and bulgur. With my research I now undertand why it works: fresh mint and parsley are part of the same aromatic family. So is sauvignon blanc. When I had my first pairing guide book back in 1996, on the first page, there was a sauvignon blanc and the suggested pairing was tabouleh with mint and parsley, so I was already on that track before I had the science. Now I can explain it and the knowledge opens new doors. Now that I know these aromaic families I can replace the mint with coriander or fennel. So there's a new path for dish creation for chefs and that's what I did with Ferran Adrià. I never talked wine with him.

How do you see your research being applied to the job of sommelier in a practical way?
Even for a sommelier who is starting, this knowledge will give him great clues. If the chef is working on the dish is mint he knows he can play with sauvignon blanc. There are many sommeliers already working in this way. Josep Roca at El Celler de Can Roca has been working this way since 2006. He is creating dishes with his brother Joan, the chef, in the kitchen. It can be applied to food creation, not only food and wine matching. It also allows you to play around. Say you have lamb with rosemary and you know that riesling goes well with rosemary. But people say white wine is no good with lamb. Okay, fine, but let's try it. So you do lamb with four rieslings from dry to full sweet with a piece of pink lamb, and the four wines go well. So, you see, aromatic compounds, and understanding them, help can help us go further.

So do you think that aromatics are more important than texture – or tannin and acid — when pairing wine with food?
I used to think that tannin – and I still sometimes think it is important – sometimes with can keep a pairing from being great. But I am convinced that aromatic impact is much more important for matching wine and food. And I don't say that because of my work, that's my experience working with wine for 25 years.

Tomorrow, in part two, Chartier discusses his collaboration with Adrià, why he is like Picasso, and how his science can bring sommeliers and chefs closer together.

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