Some like it hot and high alcohol – others don’t

chilisWe love our impossible food-wine pairings around here. While we don’t always agree on what works, we do know what works individually, almost intuitively.

Now a sommelier is trying to break food-wine pairing down to a molecular level. According to a story in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, François Chartier is making the “corkscrew counterpart of molecular gastronomy.” His new book, Papilles et molécules (Tastebuds and Molecules) is apparently selling like hotcakes that have been reduced to a mere powder and then reconstituted as foam.

Many of the pairings reaffirm the classics such as oysters with muscadet and sauternes with foie gras, so score one for intuition.

But others defy conventional wisdom. To the tape:

Perhaps Mr. Chartier’s most controversial recommendation is high-alcohol wines with spicy foods. Conventional thinking in wine-nerd circles has long been that alcohol fuels the fire. But Mr. Chartier says it’s simply not true. For what it’s worth, I think he’s right; try spicy Thai dishes with high-alcohol gewurztraminer from Alsace or red zinfandel from California and be amazed by the synergy.

What do you think, a little ripasso with your Thai red curry? Zinfandel and chicken jalfrezi? Personally, I’m inclined toward a Mosel Riesling. But I’ll try anything once!

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12 Responses to “Some like it hot and high alcohol – others don’t”

  1. does high alcohol indicate higher fruit levels which would mean higher sugars ?

  2. Weston – Yes and no .. normally yeast can work at a starting gravity of 1.105 / brix 25.3 or lower. Beyond that (approximately 15% potential alcohol) the alcohol concentration will kill the yeast, leaving the remaining sugar unfermented, i.e., meaning resulting in an off dry or sweet wine. You can however trick the yeast by adding additional sugar during the fermentation (after some of the initial sugars have been converted to alcohol) resulting in higher alcohol. So to your question, the high alcohol does mean high sugar levels, but it might not be higher fruit levels. Hope this helps!

  3. Not sure it’s alcohol one should focus on. Fruit is more important IMO. Full-bodied fruity reds like Zinfandel, Douro reds and Pinotage work in spite of their alcohol, not because of it.

  4. […] Chartier il “cavatappi molecolare” dalla stampa canadese; anche negli USA  mostrano interesse. Dove sta la novità? Sfruttare l’analisi molecolare delle sostanze contenute nei cibi, per […]

  5. Don’t agree I will go with a good rose’. You need something delicate to counter balance the spiciness in my opinion. Unless it is just hot and tasteless then I will use ice cubes anda fire existinguisher 😉 . A disclaimer: I am not a fun of high alcohol wines. Despite what they write in the labels very few can be natural wines. And if they are they aren’t dry (or if they are they bs because they are using artificial additives and evil machines – such as reverse osmosis). Why? Very simple. Yeast is an Eukaryotic cell ( DNA + a nucleus) responsible for alcoholic fermentation: they eat sugar and “poop” alcohol . A natural yeast tends to stop at the levels of 14/14.5 (if grapes are healthy and we are talking s. cerevisiae – baianus is not natural and is another game). That leaves you with a big problem… a wine with no or partial malo. Malolactic fermentation is done if you are hitting a target, if you are in a diamond, where PH (acidity) must be at least 3.2 , Alcohol is less than 13%, Temperature is on 16C or higher (best 18C -65F), SO2 less than 10ppm. These are the big 4 for malo. Now when alcohol is going up literally drills Prokaryotic cells – his majesty oenococcus oeni . What to do then? Or you work before in the vineyards and you are able to reach phenolic maturation at lower alcohol content (example Bressan). Or you leave it as it is and you can still make a dam great wine (try Coulee de Serrant N Joly) or you freeze the status with sulfur (which is not that evil as many think) or you go the monsanto way… There are GM bacteria, actually now they have mixed yeast+bacteria, that can go at that alc. level that can ferment at 10C (and they can probably even serve you breakfast in the morning) and/or you use reverse osmosis. Well you got the idea!

  6. high alcohol and spicy food? tequila or rum cocktails with anything fiery hot is a classic pairing. Or is it the ice, lime, or sugar that tames the capsaicin? Sorry if its not a wino answer.

  7. Thanks for those technical perspectives on wine making.

    Winematcher/Fiona – so are you giving a thumbs up to Zin and jalfrezi?

    Patrick – yes, cocktails, but the ice melt and juice reduce the alc levels in the drink a lot from the straight tequila/rum level. And the juice (or simple syrup or HFCS) sweetens it way up.

  8. I have to take it with a grain of salt (no pun intended), to quote Mr. Chartier – “In fact, two of the worst partners for hot food are beverages many people instinctively reach for in Thai restaurants: light white wines and beer. “It’s completely crazy,” Mr. Chartier says. In the case of beer, “the CO{-2} will make the burn more hot. It’s like putting oil on fire. You need something full-bodied and preferably sweet instead.”

    I have been drinking beer with fiery food as long as I can remember – and it is the only alcoholic beverage I will consider with bird’s eye chile infused skipjack ceviche. In fact, a belgian ale is the best pairing I’ve had with spicy food – and I’ve tried everything from an Austrian pinot blanc all the way to Turley’s zinfandels. Following Mr. Chartier’s analogy, should port pair well spicy food? The requisites are there: full-bodied, sweet, and high alc.

  9. Science is science, but as science goes there’s a difference between a controlled experiment and one put against an uncontrolled variable, namely the taster. Molecules can pair up as perfectly as they want and this method may work for a majority. However, there will always be those with a different internal chemistry/physiological reaction, and therefore, have different taste on the matter. I think this is shown by the comments.

  10. Paolo,

    Here in California we regularly see wines finish alcoholic fermentation, even with non bayanus strains at over 16% alcohol. In fact, some wineries are famous for their native yeast that can ferment to very high alcohol levels. We typically do see full malolactic fermentation completion even in high alcohol wines because our pHs tend to be higher. You are correct about the pyramid of MLF. I do agree that high alcohol is a problem and we need to do a better job of correcting the phenolic maturity/ physiological maturity imbalance.

    I wonder what you mean about bayanus strains not being natural. Cultured bayanus stains that are available have been isolated from Champagne and the Rhone.

  11. Joel:

    Thank you for pointing out this, I will try to answer with my point of view/ experience as you know this is a matter very complex.

    1. Bayanus: True there are indigenous yeasts that can go up even to 18%; think about the whole family of the Zygosaccharomyces and or Torulaspora strains for example. I may have some doubts about the fact that bayanus was present in the environment of the vineyards. Besides the regions you indicated the most populated area of that strain is Hungarian Tokaj; there are studies conducted since 1965… only problem done… just in the cellars. It is true that bayanus is used particularly for Champagnes; my opinion is (waiting counter proof) is that if it has become a resident it will be more in the cellars after some use, particularly as over there they try to select and maintain the yeasts cultures therefore creating a semi-natural yeast. The divide between natural and not natural then becomes thin… at some point ML01 will become a resident and can be considered a natural yeast by someone while we both know is a GM yeast. Remember that compared to cervisiae bayanus (like pastorianus) have complex and hybrid origin.

    2. MLF: My point is that if you want to have wine with malo done the pillars are the ones that we both agree or bacterias (not yeast) won’t work and malo is carried by bacterias not yeast. You say that if PH is high malo can be carried… True that the higher PH the better BUT if alcohol is too high oenococcus oeni is killed, dead, kaputt period… so who runs the show? If it is a natural fermentation and o.o. dies something else has to carry it over and that can be done just from lacto bacilli (that are of animal not vegetal origin so to me you already are in the GM world). Truth is that lactobacilli can enter the environment in different way. A firm can make milk and cheese for example, and many dry yeasts are actually a whole package of yeasts, bacteria and enzymes so if you use them one time and then you decide to go with indigenous yeasts the coltures are already there.
    Of course ready to change my vision if someone shows that I am wrong.

  12. Thanks for your point of view. I have not heard these perspectives before and they are very thought provoking to say the least.


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