As a supposed wine expert, I am often asked for advice. What wine is the best Tuesday night wine? What do I think of Chateau Blousy 2002? What wine should I recommend my mother serve to her bridge group next Monday afternoon? The list goes on. I should note the level of questions seeking advice has increased in sophistication since I launched WVN in December 2005.
We are making progress on some fronts. This is good and I hope WVN has been able to contribute to this heightened level of inquiry in some fashion.
Sometimes I am asked a question that stumps me. The best thing an expert can do in this instance is to admit one is stumped and then think out loud to logically come up with a rational answer.
To a supposed expert this honest, rational approach is often all too simple and frankly, for many, unbecoming to one’s status as an expert. Who said experts were confident and assured people, behind the outward-facing veneer of confidence and assurance?
So, what does an expert do when presented with a tough, never-seen-before question?
He – all experts are males, if you didn’t already know – blurts out an answer that sounds so expert, the listener simply has to accept it. The response is either so technical or obscure it can’t be challenged and thus it must be correct and useful.
Well, I recently gave an expert answer to a tough question and as you might expect nobody knew the difference in digesting said response. My response named wines made with a grape that is rarely seen in Ontario so I was pretty safe in my response. By the way, it was an honest attempt at an expert and helpful response to the question.
If you haven’t guessed by now, this note is a mea culpa, a confession.
It turns out the advice I gave earlier this week may be directionally correct but probably won’t stand up to real-world scrutiny. Bad on me.
Secondly, a reader sent me an article this week that challenges the concept of expertise. Same reader is an expert, in a domain that most of us have no qualifications, so he was being playful when he sent me the link.
The article made me think. Expertise is a state of mind; both for the expert and for the expert’s audience. Because the expert is clearly so knowledgeable, his expertise goes unchallenged, even when it may be wrong and potentially unreliable. Experts have an obligation to be responsible when sharing their advice.
Consider the assessment of the wine expert in the article I was sent:
“Do snooty wine experts really know what they’re talking about? French wine researcher Frédéric Brochet found the experts couldn’t even tell white wine from red. He dyed white wines red with tasteless food colouring before serving them to 54 wine experts. Not a single taster noticed the switch…”
Well, I take my obligations as an expert seriously so when I came home from the Q&A with my friend, I did some research and learned a whole lot more about the challenge of the question I was lobbed. In fact, I was able to find an answer to the question I would never have been able to concoct in a million years, following traditional wine dogma.
The question was “what wine will match best with a curry?” Beer is the common answer, but it’s not wine…
Curry challenges the traditional sweet, sour, acid, bitter, umami framework we use when considering wine and food matches.
I gave my answer and we changed the subject.
When I got home late that evening I went to one of my most reliable sources, Taste Buds and Molecules, a book written by Quebecois sommelier, François Chartier. For the past twenty years Chartier has studied the volatile molecules in food and wine, the aroma molecules that give each food and wine its unique flavour profile.
Flavour from aromatic molecules, you say? Yes, flavours come from aromas. If you don’t understand this phenomenon, take a sip of wine and close your nostrils while the wine is still in your mouth. You will be surprised to learn that you can feel the texture, the acid and the tannins (in a red wine) but you can’t identify any flavour in the wine. Release your nostrils and your mouth fills with the berry, oak, coffee, etc flavours that are in the wine. There is a similar impaired effect on our palate when we suffer from a head cold.
Chartier’s studies continue today but he published his early findings a couple of years ago in this exceptional book that has been embraced by chefs and sommeliers throughout the world. It is a somewhat technical book but is worth buying for its ideas, its beautiful packaging and its thought-provoking content. The Chartier thesis is built on the premise that the best wine/food matches deliver a match of the aromatic properties in the food and the wine to be served with that food.
The uniqueness of curry comes from one of the four traditional spices at the heart of every curry blend: fenugreek. Fenugreek is blended with cumin, coriander and turmeric to form the base of almost every curry and fenugreek contains the volatile molecule 4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone, the molecule (we all) know as sotolon.
Sotolon smells of caramel and is a factor in maple syrup, flax oil, wines which evolve in barrel under a cap of yeast (such as some sherries), soy sauce, sake, brown and black beers, some oxidized wines, Havana cigars, smoky teas and aged sweet wines made from overripe grapes.
So with this background it is evident that wine matches for curries will be drawn from wines that contain the sotolon molecule: the Sauternes, family, manzanilla and oloroso sherries, mature white wines (i.e. wines that show some oxidation), vins doux naturel, mature champagne and so on.
Well, was I surprised and you, too, may be surprised. Most importantly I now have an answer to the curry-match question. I can’t wait to be asked again.
Now, back to the expert issue.
What is an expert? It’s someone who knows a lot about a subject. It’s someone who is careful and humble in how they dispense their knowledge about that subject. It’s someone who does his/her research before they answer expert level questions. Most importantly, it’s someone who knows where to look for the answer to those expert level questions.
Next question please…
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2012.