Last Sunday I took part in a round table at the Wine & Culinary conference, an event organized by Bodegas Torres. According to President Miguel A. Torres, the aim of this conference is to support Catalan and Spanish cuisine, promote moderate wine consumption –preferably alongside food– and, incidentally, prove that despite being a large volume producer, their wines are not only intended for supermarkets but are also meant to be enjoyed in restaurants.
Foreign speakers included Masters of Wine Sarah Jane Evans and Markus del Monego, French wine critic Michel Bettane and his fellow countryman, winemaker Pascal Chatonnet, and Jon Arvid Rosengren, the Swedish, New-York based somm who was recently crowned World’s Best Sommelier.
Our brief panel discussion was moderated by Spanish journalist Víctor de la Serna who also produces wine in Manchuela (Castilla - La Mancha). Panelists included Tim Atkin MW and Jorge Balsera, a former music promoter who fell in love with wine and started his Sibaritastur blog –kudos to him for having the courage to defend casual wine consumption beyond food in such a vinous-culinary forum. The final question posed by Víctor de la Serna, which remained unanswered as time run out, was: “Why do food magazines care so little about wine and why wine publications pay so little attention to food?
If I had been given a chance to answer, I would have had to admit that I don’t feel at ease with pairings because I lack the necessary technical and scientific background but also because I think it can be a limiting factor for wine consumption. Should I stop enjoying a particular wine simply because there is no suitable food around to match it? I don’t think so. I agree with Jorge Balsera on this issue. There are many moments to enjoy wine by itself, particularly in a leisurely way at the end of the day; or a comforting sweet or fortified wine on a cold winter evening, not to mention the enormous pleasure of uncorking a bottle and drinking small sips while cooking –that should be considered a mental rather than a physical pairing.
I do have a couple of tricks based on my experience which I happily share: hard-to-pair foods like artichokes, pickles or others containing vinegar are easier to match with sherry; cheese is usually better with whites; and when dining out with friends or family and there are multiple dishes on the table, oak-aged white wines are incredibly versatile to match both fish and meat.
We, wine lovers, usually look for wine-friendly restaurants to make sure that we find something fun or new to try. I normally prefer short menus and wine lists with a themed, strong identity rather than a very extensive list of renowned producers –it takes longer to decide and choices are based on price.
Restaurants are the perfect ground for pairings. A good sommelier will match food and wine, draw their clients’ attention to different combinations and, to a certain extent, also educate them. I recall El Bulli sommelier, Ferran Centelles, mentioning in a conference a long time ago how important it is to adapt the language to the people you are talking to. In any case, the result will always be subjective based on the sensorial background of each person. Luckily, the current mantra at the most sensitive, quality-oriented restau-rants is to offer rewarding experiences to make clients happy.
Josep Pitu Roca is the referent for Spanish and other somms, not only for his deep knowledge of pairings as a result of years of work and research, but for his ability to transcend wine and food and deal with pure emotions.
At El Celler de Can Roca (3 Michelin stars) they go far beyond cooking with wine; wines have been turned into dishes and textures transformed; soil from specific vineyards has been distilled. Participants in the Wine & Culinary conference stood dumbfounded by the two paired menus he presented: one of them was a tribute to La Tâche; the second one, an incredibly daring culinary homage to Riesling, aka “the great white lady”, was an endless combination of wines and dishes beginning with fresh grapes directly brought from a German vineyard.
During his speech, Pitu Roca thanked brothers Joan and Jordi for letting him on food. “Hopefully all somms are as lucky as I am in terms of being listened to in the kitchen”. In a similar vein, French critic Michel Bettane summed up his decade-long partnership with chef Guy Martin. Bettane spoke of kitchens with "two heads" and said that when sommeliers and chefs work together the outcome is outstanding.
Is it possible to transfer technical concepts often based on textures, flavours (sour, salty, sweet, bitterness and umami, which is so in vogue today in wine and cuisine), consistencies and temperatures to our daily lives?
I highly recommend reading Ferran Centelles book Qué vino con este pato –the title plays with the Spanish words plato (dish) and pato (duck). This enjoyable, practical and easy to read book is a perfect summary of the various theories on food and wine pairing. Packed with personal stories and funny comparisons, it can be read by anyone who is curious about the subject. It does not only offer ideas that can be put into practice at home; it provides basic concepts (affinity, contrasts, versatile wines ...) for aficionados venturing into this relatively unexplored world to start experimenting by themselves.
Paradoxically, molecular food matching turns out to be an almost infallible and uncomplicated formula. François Chartier’s cutting-edge approach is based on the dominant aromatic molecules found in wine –he creates perfect matches by cooking with products containing the same molecules. According to this method, Sauvignon Blanc works great with fresh mint, Syrah with black olives and oak-aged wines with clove. Chartier surprised Wine & Culinary participants by successfully applying this idea on chocolate proving that the molecular approach works with all types of products. Chartier himself is a great example of how a complicated theory can reach a large audience. Despite all the chemistry involved, his presentations are tremendously dynamic and entertaining.
This brings us back to the most important point —particularly in Spain, where wine consumption is at dramatically low levels: how to make wine more interesting for consumers. All of us —sommeliers, journalists, chefs, producers, wine merchants— are involved in this match.