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Sommeliers learn science of molecular food matching

Braced by the success of restaurants like El Bulli and the Fat Duck, sommeliers are picking up the science of molecular food matching, Europe’s first food and wine pairing conference has heard.

‘Aromatic families’: François Chartier

The one-day Wine & Culinary International Forum, masterminded by the Torres family, took place in Barcelona at the weekend and brought together some 250 international press and industry professionals, as well as dozens of sommeliers from around the world.

Speakers included veteran chef Alain Senderens, Gaston Acurio of the Peruvian chain Grupo Acurio, which has just opened the restaurant Tanta in Barcelona, sommelier Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, voted second best restaurant in the world, and his fellow Catalan, Ferran Centelles, formerly of El Bulli.

Speakers noted that sommeliers, inspired by Canadian wine-pairing guru François Chartier, are starting to bring scientific rigour into the field of food and wine pairing.

Chartier, who worked with Ferran Adrià at the celebrated – and now closed – El Bulli, is the author of bestseller Papilles et Molecules (Tastebuds and Molecules), in which he identifies a number of flavour compounds or ‘aromatic families’ to which different foods and wines belong.

Pork, black pudding and coconut, for example, all contain lactones – as do oak barrels, hence these foods’ compatibility with oak-aged red wines.

Sauvignon Blanc, mint and parsley all contain anise, which explains why Sauvignon Blanc and the Eastern Mediterranean dish tabbouleh pair well.

Similarly, the affinity between black olives and Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blends is explained by the fact they all contain the peppery – and extremely potent – compound rotundone.

This last resulted in Chartier inventing a sushi for red wine lovers, containing black olives, pepper and coffee-flavoured wild rice.

But sommeliers should not get carried away with their new-found knowledge, some panellists warned. Both critic Jancis Robinson, and Josep Roca, said they need to keep their egos in check.

‘If people have come to celebrate we cannot interrupt them with 14 different drinks, Roca said. ‘We have to manage the sommelier’s vanity. The perfect match is not always perfect for our customers.’

Robinson complained of ‘bullying…usually by French sommeliers, particularly in Paris’.

‘You order the wine and get sommeliers saying “No, no you don’t want that”. I don’t know whether it’s because they’ve run out, or if they’re on a power trip, or they simply think they know the chef’s dishes better than I do. I hope it’s the latter.’

Opening the conference, Miguel Torres said that the idea had been inspired by the ‘spectacular success of Catalan and Spanish cuisine’.

He also suggested it was a fightback against the idea that wine should carry similar health warnings to tobacco. ‘Wine can’t be considered in the same category, because it needs to be partnered with food,’ he said.

Written by Fiona Beckett, and Adam Lechmere

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