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Book Review: The Latest in Wine and Food Pairing

Cover of Why You Like the Wines You Like

Review by Tim Patterson.

If you find the subject of food and wine pairing confusing, intimidating or irritating, read Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules and then Tim Hanni’s Why You Like the Wines You Like in quick succession, and wait for your head to explode.

These two highly opinionated volumes have only one thing in common: they both argue that just about everything you ever thought about wine and food pairing (including, by implication, anything in the other book) is wrong. Beyond that, there is some overlap on topics, but precious little agreement about what you should put in your mouth at the same time and why.

Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor received a Gourmand World Cookbook award for the most innovative cookbook in the world in 2009 (in the original French edition), and it has gotten rave reviews from columnists for all the major English-language wine magazines since it appeared in translation. The hubbub comes because Chartier’s work is perceived as having put the tangle of wine and food pairing, finally, on a truly scientific basis by identifying specific aromatic molecules that can be found in certain groups of foods and wines, and which are therefore guaranteed to produce great matches at the table.

Hanni’s Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the way the world thinks about wine brings together a number of arguments he has made over the years to anyone in the wine industry who will listen: that people come to the table with different sensory equipment, which means they perceive both food and wine differently; that therefore there can be no “correct,” universal food and wine rules; and that just about any food and any wine combination cam be made copasetic by balancing the flavors in the food. That way, he argues, all the wine drinkers are happy, not just the ones who count Parker Points, and the industry will sell more wine.

Chartier, in short, says it’s all about aroma, in the food and in the glass; the book might almost better be called Olfactory Bulb and Molecules. It’s actually Hanni who says it’s all about taste, and how not everyone has the same buds. Chartier looks for attractions (his term) between chemical compounds in food and wine; Hanni emphasizes how all these ingredients get funneled through the taster, who has the final vote, leading to his mantra, match the wine with the diner, not he dinner.

I would love to invite both of these guys for a meal at a place with a long wine list, and a tableful of guests.

Chartier, from Montreal, perfected his theory of “molecular sommellierie” in the time he spent at elBulli, the now-shuttered Spanish temple of molecular gastronomy, where science got applied to the food, too–everything from kitchen lasers to foamed protein to fruit turned into smoked gas, just for the texture. The book’s pitch for scientific cred includes introductions about what a conceptual pioneer Chartier is from various luminaries, along with a sprinkling of quotes from Albert Einstein, plus some quotes about Albert Einstein, in case you were missing the comparison.

Chartier’s earlier foray into pairing was the identification of “bridge ingredients,” things included with a dish that would make it wine-friendlier. From observing the affinities that had overlaps in chemical composition, he compiled tables of compounds and the foods that contained them. After some kitchen verification experiments, voila! Molecular sommellierie.

Sauvignon Blanc, he noticed, often has an anise aromatic element, which seems to pair well with mint, which is related to anise. The first pairing chapter expands this insight to describe how anise aromas can be found in three families of plants–Apiaceae, which includes chervil and fennel; Asteraceae, which includes tarragon; and Lamiaceae, which includes basil and peppermint. Compounds found in these plant groups include anethole, R-carvone, S-carvone, estragol, eugenol, apigenin, and menthol. Extend the tree far enough and you can rope in parsley, yellow beets, radicchio, parsnips, lemongrass, cumin, and dandelions. And then extend the wine options beyond Sauvignon Blanc to Chenin Blanc, Albariño, Cortese, Furmint, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Vermentino, and, in a pinch, Romorantin.

Maybe. Subsequent chapters get more problematic. The second pairing chapter, centered on the caramel-like compound sotolon, encourages you to try a pairing that rocked Chartier’s world, matching a white from the Jurançon macerated with roasted fenugreek seeds with “Princess scallop and their coral, and three types of espumas (sake and salt water; roasted fenugreek seeds macerated in wine; maple syrup), accompanied by watercress and red shiso.” Your place or mine?

The beef chapter, not surprisingly, recommends big, tannic, red wines–though more on the notion that fleshy meat needs fleshy wine than on chemical propinquity. One of the aromatic compound groups noted for beef is the terpenes, which add herb and spice notes. But terpenes are most prominent in aromatic whites–Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Riesling–wines that are not to be found among the suggestions.

The chapter on oak and barrel-aged wines includes a little side note observing that the wood of oak and the woody parts of grapevines both contain lignins (cell stiffeners), which is true enough. But Chartier goes further: “This helps explain the natural link between the oak barrel and wine, which is marked by the presence of compounds originating in the grape stalks.” This assertion would only make sense if 1) barrels contributed some of those lignins to wine, which they don’t, and 2) if wine were made from the stalks of the plants, not the grape berries, which contain no lignins.

By the time Chartier gets to capsaicin, the fiery component of hot peppers, he goes entirely off the rails. Molecular matching is useless here, since there aren’t any wines that arrive with capsaicin in them, unless they get doctored as a prank. Undeterred, he first recommends wines with lots of tannin, since the scratchiness will distract your mouth from the heat of the capsaicin. His second suggestion is wines with high alcohol, which will somehow be perceived as sweet and provide relief. And then he issues a warning against the folly of drinking beer with hot food, because the carbonation will allegedly increase the heat.

This advice is beyond wrong. Anyone who has tried the suggested combination knows that tannic, alcoholic wines and hot foods are a train wreck in your mouth. Chartier is also telling the legions of wine lovers who go to Thai and Indian and Mexican restaurants and order beer with their food that they are dolts; what they need is a Killer Cab. Toward the end of the chapter, he contradicts himself and encourages the choice of sweet wines. By then, this doesn’t seem like science any more.

The idea that consumers are idiots for the choices they make, like beer with hot food, is exactly what drives Tim Hanni nuts. Telling people not to trust their own palates is not just bad form, he argues; it doesn’t work, it usually backfires, and the result is more cocktail drinkers.

Drawing on neurosensory research, Hanni and his frequent collaborator, sensory researcher Dr. Virginia Untermohlen of Cornell, divide wine drinkers into four groups called Vinotypes, a play on phenotype, the term in biology for a group of organisms displaying similar characteristics. An individual wine drinker gets classified into a certain Vinotype based on sensory sensitivity (taste bud equipment), level of enthusiasm for wine, and favorite wine styles. The broad groupings are Sweets (who like sweet wines, period), Hypersensitives (who also like off-dry and lighter red wines), Sensitives (willing to try most anything), and Tolerants (big, dry reds and only big reds all the time).

The Sweets get that way because they generally have the most sensitive taste apparatus, can detect bitterness a mile away, and want no part of it. Tolerants love big reds because their impoverished sensory equipment hardly notices tannin or alcohol at all. Hypersensitives and Sensitives come in between. People can change over time, both from developments in their physical gear and from the accumulation of experience–but most of them won’t, and none of them can be compelled to change against their will, no matter how many worthies tell them they should delight in something they want to spit out.

If the wine industry had any sense, says Hanni, it would cater eagerly to all these Vinotypes, and not simply glorify the highly-pointed reds, or repeat some “rule” handed down through the ages.

The book also spends time on the concept of Flavor Balancing, which comes down to the mechanics of taste combinations. Briefly put, the presence of or increase in sweetness or umami character in food makes any wine taste stronger and more intense; the presence of salt or acidity makes wine taste milder and smoother. These interactions, he argues, are the key to matching food and wine, not anything involving lychee aromas or hints of tobacco. By implication, a dish that makes a Big Red taste harsh and awful might benefit from a squirt of lemon, making the wine seem suddenly mellow.

So when Hanni gets to beef, he suggests that the reader try a plain piece of cooked beef with a tannic, high-octane red, and predicts it won’t be that much fun. But sprinkle a little salt on that steak, and the match is made. The reason umami-laden oysters work with acidic white wines has little to do with the oyster, but works because they get doused with mignonette, where the vinegar promotes the pairing. And so on.

Maybe we should have oysters and beef at my dream dinner.

Both of these books are irritating in their own ways. Why You Like the Wines You Like is overly long, wordy, and repetitive; not only do some topics come up several times, some jokes get repeated. It’s like a Tim Hanni brain dump, useful in bringing together the various strands of the work he’s done in recent years, but not exactly concise. It includes an acknowledgment that he is an alcoholic who has given up drinking (except for the occasional sip and spit). It’s a brave thing to admit, and since Hanni’s struggles are well known in the industry, it needs to be in there. On the other hand, more space is devoted to biographical detail and the recounting of “aha!” moments than most readers will need.

The layout and design of the Chartier’s book are distinctly post-modern, an ADHD jumble of text and photos and scribbles and dotted lines between this and that. Families of related foods and wines are portrayed as though they had been scrawled on a blackboard and linked together–maybe that’s just another part of the Einstein thing.

More important, and more irritating, it presents itself as a work of science, which it is not. It does refer to a great number of chemical compounds, but without any trace of scientific method: no references, no controlled experiments, no rigorous tasting validation. No discussion can be found, for example, of what difference it might make that any one of these allegedly critical unifying compounds has to co-exist with hundreds of other aroma and flavor components in a plate of food or glass of wine. Are these isolated chemicals really magic bullets? The Vinography site contains tens of thousands of different words, but that does not make it useful as a dictionary. Taste Buds and Molecules contains much scientific lingo, but no actual science.

Hanni’s book, for all its blowziness, actually does make use of legitimate science. People really do have different taste sensitivities. Food and wine pairings can only be evaluated through a third element, the taster. Most historical pairing “rules” can’t stand scrutiny. Telling people they should like something doesn’t mean they will. And ignoring or denigrating a huge swath of the potential wine consumership is a goofy business model.

I need a Porterhouse, medium-rare. And some hot sauce. And a beer.

Francois Chartier, Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor, Wiley, 2012, $24.75 (hardcover).

Tim Hanni, MW, Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the way the world thinks about wine, New Wine Fundamentals, 2012, $25.00 (paperback)

Tim Patterson writes for several wine magazines, blogs at Blind Muscat’s Cellarbook, co-edits the Vinography book review section, and is the author of Home Winemaking for Dummies.

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