Pairing Particulars: François Chartier and the Molecular Frontier of Food and Wine Pairing

by Emily Bell and Jeff Harding
November 2011

The culinary world has its pantry-swapping, boundary-blurring, role-changing revolutions. The wine world? Far less tumultuous. Through all the great metamorphoses of modern day mealtime, the one constant seems to be beverage pairing. Sure, a few excellent cocktails have made their way into the pairing cycle. And yes, some somms even traipse—carefully—beyond traditional pairing “rules.” But sake and Sazerac pairings aside, the basic process of choosing a wine for your meal seems historically, immovably staid.

Tasting Puffed Rice at Taste Buds and Molecules at ICC2011

Tasting Puffed Rice at Taste Buds and Molecules at ICC2011

Enter François Chartier, Quebecois sommelier on a mission to redefine not the way we pair, necessarily, but the way we look at pairing, one volatile aromatic molecule at a time. It’s been five years since Chartier was first moved to approach food and wine pairing on a molecular level. The source of his inspiration was, fittingly, the ground zero of modern procedural redux: El Bulli. Chartier was inspired not only by the scientific nature of Ferran Adria’s approach, but also the documentary openness of it. And now, after half a decade of pairing experimentation and culinary collaboration, Chartier has compiled a catalogue of his own. And like Adria, he shares his findings, chapter by explanatory chapter, in his forthcoming Taste Buds and Molecules (February 2012). (And just because we couldn't wait, Chartier gave us a preview of his pairing process for recipes from ICC Presenters Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz and Philip Speer of Uchi.) 

Building Bridges

Chartier began his research by identifying what he calls “harmonic bridge ingredients,” uniting food and wine by a shared predominant molecular compound. One of the first “aromatic tracks” the somm sleuth went down was based on his hard-earned knowledge of component agreement, in this case the old-school compatibility of mint and Sauvignon Blanc. He found that anise flavor comes from compounds, such as anethole and estragole, and is predominate in foods with mint and anise-like flavors—celery, escarole, fresh coriander, and chervil (to name a very few). Armed with this knowledge, Chartier created unheard of pairings between foods containing these compounds and wines with similar anise qualities (Albarino, Godello, and Pinot Blanc, among others). But like any self-respecting sommelier, he didn’t stop at whites.

Anise is, of course, the main flavor of black licorice, but also an elemental note in fennel, Jerusalem artichokes, and other rhizomes. Lamb shank braised with tomatoes, pastis, and fennel definitely calls for a big juicy red, so Chartier tried a Rhone Valley Syrah, which expresses an anise tonality. The anethole molecules in the pastis and fennel literally seek out similar notes in the wine, creating a powerhouse combination. Additionally, the licorice compound in anise contains glycyrrhizic acid, which gives wine length and persistence in the mouth. Braised lamb with Syrah has always been beautiful pairing. But with an understanding of the science behind it—and Chartier's blessing—a chef or somm might play up the harmonic flavors with mint, star anise, or sunchokes.

In Vino Volatility

Chartier’s Perfect Pairing: McClaren Vale Shiraz Grenach and Nori-wrapped Raspberry Gelée

Chartier’s Perfect Pairing: McClaren Vale Shiraz Grenach and Nori-wrapped Raspberry Gelée

Beyond a more thorough grasp of the chemistry of food and wine pairings, the key to Chartier’s method is an ability to understand and harness the volatility of certain aromatic compounds—which is to say, the art of the sommelier is now very much nudging up against the realm of quantifiable science. Sommeliers have long understood the need to pair not only the body, acid, and mouthfeel of a wine, but also (and especially) its strongest aromatic compounds. With the help of molecular biologists, wine scientists, and guinea pig wine tasting dinners, Chartier is identifying these compounds, following them like a chain from foods to wines and back again—all the while investigating why and how best they express themselves.

For instance, alcohol levels significantly influence the aromas we perceive. As alcohol level increases, some aromatic compounds are enhanced while others are more difficult to smell. Additionally, higher alcohol wines allow for aromatic compounds with a high molecular density, which are less likely to evaporate and thus be smelled. Many low-alcohol Rieslings are highly aromatic, even just sitting in a glass. But a hefty, high-alcohol California cabernet has to be swirled (invigorating the molecules and releasing them into the air) and studied to appreciate its complexity.

Creatively Counterintuitive

Chartier’s methods might be exciting and timely (a precious combination in the food world)—but they’re predicated on a method that, at least initially, reverses traditional pairing styles (did someone say revolution?). In classic sommellerie, the diner chooses a dish and the sommelier follows up with a wine pairing. In Chartier’s “molecular sommellerie,” pairing logic might begin in either food or wine. It’s up to the informed sommelier to build harmonic molecular bridges from either side of the equation.

But it’s not a method out of step with the abilities—or propensities—of today’s sommelier. In fact, it actually stimulates an important discussion. Chartier suggests that an increased vocabulary and understanding of cooking will enhance every sommelier’s craft. And vice versa—Chartier’s book is of equal value to chefs. His intention is to present “new ways to create recipes for both cooks and chefs, and a new understanding of wine and food pairings for both wine amateurs and wine professionals.” Which is to say, in Chartier’s world, the sommelier thinks like the chef, the chef thinks like a sommelier, and both of them work like scientists—all in pursuit of the art of the perfect pairing.