The matchmakers

Image of Jancis Robinson

When, long ago, I wrote for The Sunday Times, I used to say I wanted to be the “good times” correspondent. My argument was that although the paper’s writers tended to have specialities – wine, food and travel among them – readers often experience these pleasures of life together, so wouldn’t it be an idea to have someone writing about all three in one glorious amalgam?

I certainly love all three, and am sad that there isn’t more blurring of the disciplines. Traditionally, wine experts rarely stray into the territory of solid matter, many of them viewing it as a distraction rather than a healthy complement. And in my experience many authorities on food, and even chefs, can find wine dauntingly complicated.

This has been changing, though I wonder whether the evolution is headed in a direction that is truly helpful to the consumer. Chefs in France always seemed less intimidated by wine than most of their counterparts elsewhere – for obvious reasons perhaps – with the Troisgros family in Roanne being particularly respected for their connoisseurship. But it was Alain Senderens, chef-proprietor of the three-star L’Archestrate and then Lucas Carton in Paris, who first used wine to inspire his dishes, most famously a duck cooked in the Roman style of Apicius with Banyuls, Roussillon’s riposte to port.

He is now 72 and, having handed back his Michelin stars, is still devising dishes at his eponymous Paris restaurant with a glass by his side. With each of his dishes he proposes a specific wine – something that was novel once but is now relatively common. I love this opportunity to try several different wines, and I would be confident chez Senderens that thought and experience had gone into the selection. But as “specially selected” wines by the glass become fashionable alongside dishes on menus, I find myself cynically wondering how the wines were chosen. Real love and knowledge of both food and wine is still relatively rare alas, and I suspect in some cases the wines have been chosen because they look as though they might work, or because certain bottles are already open, rather than because the combination has been put to the test.

In the US, food and wine matching has become immensely important, perhaps as another way of reassuring the relatively high proportion of American newcomers to wine. Specialist writer on the subject Evan Goldstein has published two books on food and wine and they sell tens of thousands of copies. His British counterpart is Fiona Beckett who, most unusually, writes with equal competence about both food and wine and manages not to sound precious on her site Both of them are sure guides to the many wine drinkers, and especially hosts, who seem to worry enormously about what to serve with what.

But I recently encountered someone who has taken the business of matching food and wine to a whole new level. Like Goldstein, François Chartier of Quebec was a very successful sommelier. He devoured the traditional literature of food and wine pairing and found it wanting. Some of the classic combinations worked but some, such as Roquefort and Sauternes (guilty, m’lud), didn’t – or at least only sometimes.

He started to investigate the science of these pairings and, with a nod to the likes of his co-investigator, Ferran Adrià of el Bulli, and Heston Blumenthal, by 2006 had come up with something he calls “molecular sommelry”. The idea is that he identifies the dominant aromatic molecules in various wines and foodstuffs and matches them up. Sauvignon Blanc, mint and parsley are all long on anise flavours, so, with a couple of circles on a blackboard, the engaging Chartier is able to suggest Sauvignon as a suitable accompaniment to tabbouleh, the fragrant Middle Eastern salad (even if much of it is presumably eaten by teetotallers). The aromatic molecule rotundone is apparently easily found in both Syrah and black olives. And as for sotolon, the characteristic molecule of the Jura’s vin jaune, it apparently feels wonderfully at home in the cosy sensory world of (some) curry spices, maple syrup and walnuts.

As Chartier says in his bestselling book Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine and Flavor, “I would certainly need a good 20 years to scan all the foods and wines that are found on our table”, but he intends to do so. His suggestions include chocolate-dipped asparagus with lapsang souchong tea, and raspberries with nori seaweed. He assures us that all these combos have a scientific basis.

His was the most stimulating presentation at a recent conference in Barcelona on wine and food organised by canny Catalan wine producer Torres. Several hundred of us gathered to listen to and taste a full day’s deliberations by sommeliers and chefs. Oddly enough it had been inspired by an article in the Guardian newspaper last July calling for health warnings on wine bottles. The current head of the company, Miguel A. Torres, had been so alarmed by this possibility that he moved swiftly to organise an event that would underline wine’s role as gastronomic ingredient.

What resonated with me most, however, was a rumination on the business of being a sommelier from Josep Roca, the winiest of the three brothers who run El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. An hour’s solo speech on any subject is generally 30 minutes too long in my experience. And one on the business of wine waiting and food matching, translated from a language I don’t speak, looked potentially a complete yawn. But in the end Roca’s obvious humility was the most charming and essential ingredient in any gastronomic union. One phrase stood out: “When recommending wines, remember that what you think is perfect may not in fact be perfect for the person or the occasion. We sommeliers have to learn to manage our vanity.”

He then sat in the front row taking notes throughout. What a star.

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