Monday, April 18, 2011

What Can Modernist Cuisine Teach us About Wine?

By Peter Bell, Winemaker

If you’re serious about cutting-edge food and drink and happen to have $625 to spare, you might consider picking up a copy of  “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”, just out in hardcover. I opted to save my money and read John Lanchester’s review in The New Yorker instead, since most of the food that the authors advance is best sampled in restaurants equipped with a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of specialized cooking gizmos. Mind you, your meal at one of those places is likely to cost about the same as the book does, per person.

One of the tenets of this kind of food preparation is the assumption that many classic techniques are just plain wrong. Cooking a juicy steak? Don’t place it on a hot grill and leave it there undisturbed, as we’ve all been taught; for optimal flavor you should flip it every fifteen seconds. The reviewer goes on,

[The authors] also claim to have a way of improving wine by ‘hyperdecanting’ it via sixty seconds in a blender—the idea being that it will benefit from the oxygenation and outgassing effects. My solemn, taking-one-for-the-team experiments with red wine have partly confirmed this for Schwarzeneggarian young reds.

I haven’t mustered up the enthusiasm yet to try this myself, though my blender looks eager enough to have a go at it, as it does with all food and drink tasks that involve noise and violence. In any case, my hunch is that Finger Lakes reds, being svelte and ectomorphic rather than Arnold-esque, don’t need to be pulverized to be approachable. (Any readers who do want to give hyperdecanting a ‘spin’ are welcome to report their experiences in the comments section.)

One of the central techniques of modernist cuisine involves cooking meats slowly and at low temperatures, often in a liquid that is the same temperature (say, 149 F) as the final ‘done’ temperature of the food itself. The downside, apparently, is that the food sometimes tastes too much like a perfect version of itself (for example, sous vide chicken is too chickeny) and not enough of the flavors we’re used to (roasty, caramel-like, and with a moisture gradient between the surface and the interior).

Lanchester continues:

The lesson was that no taste was inherently better than another: within certain physiological constraints, tastes are not innate but learned, and the acquisition of tastes is a kind of dance between the person at the stove and the person at the table.

Tricia and I talk about these kinds of things in relation to wine all the time, as part of our ongoing attempts to try and understand how to define quality. We could easily rephrase that statement as follows:

No taste is inherently better than another: within certain physiological constraints, tastes are not innate but learned, and the acquisition of tastes is a kind of dance between the winemaker and the person drinking the wine.

We’re not talking about the basic flavors that can be detected by the human tongue (sweet, salty, sour, etc.) but the complex flavors – they’re really smells – that make one wine distinguishable from another, and perhaps make one ‘better’ than another.

The particular cluster of aromas that accompanies the presence of a yeast called Brettanomyces provides a perfect example. I’ll have more to say about our friend Brett in a later post, since it is such a huge topic. But let’s just say that some tasters, be they winemakers, wine writers, or wine consumers, have an appreciation for the smell and taste of Brett metabolites, while others find them disgusting. People in the latter category are usually unwilling to concede that Brett-flavored wine is acceptable wine, but the fact is, the wines of many highly esteemed French wine regions simply wouldn’t taste the way they do without that microorganism having run rampant in the wine.

One illustrious Rhone producer, whose seriously expensive and celebrated reds smelled of Brett and little else, finally managed to eradicate it from his wines, only to find that his customers started complaining bitterly that something had changed  –  for the worse. In that instance, the whole tango vibe went awry: an attempt at the deacquisition of a taste ended up as an unsuccessful dance between the winemaker and the people drinking the wine. One or the other party had two left feet, perhaps. I’m not sure how this problem was resolved, but it does point up the difficulties in trying to advance wine from a primitive to a modern style.

Our good friend Dave Whiting of Red Newt Wine Cellars and Bistro recalls that 16 or so years ago, as his wife Deb entered the late stages of her pregnancy, she announced that she wanted to call the baby ‘Brett’ should it be a boy. Dave took a deep breath, and tactfully pointed out that while Brett was a fine and upstanding name, it happened to have some very negative connotations for winemakers. (I remember thinking at the time, Hmm…wouldn’t that be like a gynecologist naming her daughter Candida?)  They settled on ‘Brenton.’

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