Is there a scientific basis for wine and food pairing?
I went to a really interesting seminar last week on matching champagne with food. It was based on the chemical compounds flavourist Danny Hodrien of F & F projects had identified in Mumm champagnes using gas chromatography, solid phase micro-extraction and mass spectrometry (No, I don’t know what they are either). Based on those findings Iain Graham, the executive chef at the Caprice had devised a range of canapes that incorporated the flavours rather than seeking to complement them
The technical side I found slightly difficult to follow - we were encouraged to sniff a series of phials on the table which contained the different compounds then taste the champagnes then try them with food. Given the session was packed out it all got a bit chaotic but it threw up some fascinating combinations which I’ve now had the chance to analyse in a bit more detail:
THE FOOD PAIRINGS:
G.H. Mumm de Cramant
Style: Blanc de Blancs
Flavour compounds: Ethyl-2-Methyl Butyrate (apple, tropical fruits), Ethyl Isobutyrate (fruity, light, strawberry, tropical fruits) and delta-Decalactone (creamy, butter, coconut, peach)
Match: seared Orkney scallop served with cauliflower cream on a taro crisp
My verdict: A terrific match for this champagne which accentuated its freshness though one which oddly didn’t mirror the highlighted tropical fruit flavours.
G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge
Flavour compounds: Dimethyl Sulphide (vegetable, crab, seafood, sweetcorn, tomato) Hexyl Acetate (pear, sweet, fruity) Caproic acid (sweaty, cheese-like, strawberry)
Match: steamed Atlantic prawns served with grilled corn.
My verdict: A match I suspect you wouldn’t have arrived at without the flavour analysis. Apparently grilling the corn was key - according to Iain it didn’t work as well with steamed corn. I found it slightly accentuated the dosage in the champagne though not unpleasantly
G.H. Mumm Rosé
Style: light, elegant, tasted of wild strawberries
Flavour compounds: Ethyl-2-Methyl Butyrate (apple, tropical fruits), Ethyl Isobutyrate (fruity, light, strawberry, tropical fruits)
Match: The shell fish and tropical fruit flavoured molecules of the ros were paired with yellow fin tuna sashimi and served with green mango and papaya salad seasoned with chilli, sugar and soy
My verdict: Another combination I wouldn’t have instinctively gone for but which worked very well. Interesting though that these components were also found in the Mumm de Cramant which I don’t think would have worked quite as well with the canap. Apparently Iain tried it with seared tuna but that didn’t work as well.
G.H. Mumm 2002
Style: mature vintage champagne
Flavour compounds: Diethyl Succinate (apple, tropical, star fruit, Cognac), Penyl Ethyl alcohol (rose, fermented, yeast, bread), Ethyl Crotonate (rum, sweet meat, pork, licorice) 2-Nonanone (blue cheese, yeast)
Match: Pork belly, dolcelatte and pain d‘epice: the yeasty, blue cheese and liquorice-like Mumm 2002 were paired with roasted pork belly served with macerated blue cheese and spiced bread crisp
My verdict: Like Iain I would never have put these ingredients together but they were surprisingly delicious. Would you serve them at a dinner party though, or, as a chef, in a restaurant? Can imagine them making a good burger . . .
G.H. Mumm R. Lalou 1998
Style: mature prestige cuve
Flavour compounds: Dimethyl Sulphide (vegetable, crab, seafood, sweetcorn, tomato), Furfural (almond, sweet macaroon), Furfuryl Alcohol (Sweet, grilled fish, Mushroom)
Match: Iain paired the R. Lalou’s mushroom and caramelised sugar flavours with roasted black cod served on crisp lotus with sweet miso marinade
My verdict: a bold but successful match which accentuated the richness of the champagne. (Can imagine it being good with something like lobster and vanilla too)
G.H. Mumm Demi-Sec
Flavour compounds: Ethyl-2-Methyl Butyrate (apple, tropical fruits), Ethyl Caprylate (cognac) Diethyl Succinate (apple, tropical, star fruit, Cognac), 5-Methyl-Furfural Caramel, sweet
Match: Apple and caramel millefeuille with cognac poached apple and crisp burnt sugar
My verdict: a stunning match. Interesting that there’s a scientific basis for the champagne cocktail!
Interestingly six molecules were found in all the champagnes: Ethyl Acetate which contains fruity, ethereal, sweet tastes and flavours, Isoamyl alcohol (fermented, whisky, harsh), Ethyl Caproate (pineapple and strawberry), Ethyl Lactate (rum), Ethly Caprylate (Cognac) and Ethyl Caprate (waxy fruity, apple, grape)
“There’s no one molecule that smells of ‘champagne’,” said Hodrien. “They are each like instruments in an orchestra. And orchestras containin the same instruments sound different depending on the music being played, or even the conductor”
A few thoughts:
- All the pairings worked which is unusual in an exercise of this kind though there was a bit of a ‘you could but why would you?’ aspect to a couple of the pairings such as the pork belly and blue cheese. A bit like Heston’s white chocolate and oyster pairing which was similarly scientifically based.
- Subjecting a wine to this kind of analysis certainly throws up combinations that you might not arrive it otherwise. And suggests that working with three or more flavours may be more successful than trying to match just one.
- It’s possible this exercise worked as well as it did because champagne - like beer - is a good carrier of flavour. I’ve found in the past that if you mimic the flavour of an ingredien with a still wine it tends to mask the flavour in the wine - like orange muscat with an orange-flavoured dessert.
- It still needs the skill of a chef. Not all the pairings Iain tried worked to start with.
- But even if you aren't a chef there are still some interesting ideas to take away - for example that rose champagne might match sashimi and a fruity salsa and that vintage champagne might be a good match for blue cheese.
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