Interview Francois Chartier – Best Sommelier in the World (Grand Prix Sopexa 1994)
I would have to admit: every time I see the letters MW (as in Master of Wine) or MS (Master Sommelier) after someone-I-don’t-know’s name, I stop and start Googling her or his name like they obviously must be someone important.
At least, he or she must be someone extremely talented. They must be passionate-enough to be granted such tittles, and worth my attention and research for a few minutes.
BSW are not initials you’ll ever see waved in such a manner on people’s résumé tittles.
Yet when you read what those initials stand for: Best Sommelier in the World, you do have to stop and start wondering for a second what they actually mean.
There is a bit over 300 MWs and more than 200 MSs in the world, which is already not many if you consider how many of us have dedicated their life to wine.
Since the competition was created back in 1969, Best Sommeliers in the World have been as few as 21, if that.
Francois Chartier we’re catching up with today is one of them. He was awarded the tittle from Sopexa in 1994.
Since, Francois hasn’t apparently stopped the hard work.
He is regarded internationally as one of the pioneering researchers on matching food and wine, and on creating what they call harmonies between these two pleasure of life.
Robert Parker said that he is “Pure genius!”.
Ferran Adrià, chef of the once-illustrious El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain and considered as one of the best restaurant in the world, said of him that he is the “the number one expert on flavors”.
We’ve caught up with Francois Chartier in one of our world famous Q&As, not only to learn more about him and what he’s been up to, but also to understand more about his research and theories around wine and food matching.
Q: How does one become Best Sommelier in the World?
I guess I mean: how did you get into wine in the first place, and what brought you to successfully compete to become the Best Sommelier in the World?
A: I did my sommelier training at the École Hôtelière des Laurentides in Sainte-Adèle, Québec, in the fall of 1989 and got my diploma in the spring of 1990.
I’ve worked in the restaurant business since 1985 and I’ve been quite passionate about wine and food and wine pairing since 1986. I was also co-owner of a pub specialized in imported beers in the mid-80s and I really got into beer tasting, and reading all I could on the subject and then communicating what I’d learned. . .
After that, wine became increasingly important. I started with a private course on wine tasting in early 1989, and that’s where I knew that wine and gastronomy at large were my calling. That’s the reason why I sold my stake in the pub to learn sommellerie. After that training, I moved to Burgundy so I could truly learn what sommellerie is, at the very heart of the wine world, as well as to learn the winegrowers’ vocabulary. When I came back, I pursued further studies in sommellerie, oenology, cooking, etc., and I’ve never stopped since.
Q: Your 1994 Best Sommelier in the World title is often not listed in the competition winners’ history lists. What’s the story there?
A: There were two world awards back then, the Best sommelier in the world award of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (for wines and spirits of the world) where I finished in third place (bronze medal) in 1995 in Tokyo, and the Best sommelier in the world, in French wines and spirits presented by Sopexa (Grand Prix Sopexa International, from 1986 to 1997), which I won in 1994 among the best sommeliers from 36 countries.
More info on Wikipedia (French)
Q: I was a teenager in 1994. As we say in France: “a lot of water has flown under the bridges since”. What have you been up to since? One must have loads of solicitations and choices to make, with such a title.
A: My main goal has always been to understand the world of wines and gastronomy, to study it.
Obviously, after my 1994 victory in Paris and third place in Tokyo in 1995, the offers were plentiful and diverse, but I never strayed from my desire to understand and communicate.
I hosted a tasting club for 10 years, I hosted weekly TV shows between 1996 and 2002, I hosted hundreds of events, galas, dinners, etc.
But my true laboratory was my wine tasting club where I hosted about 75 meals per year in the province’s best restaurants where I would create menus inspired by the wines we were going to taste. That set the table, no pun intended, for my scientific research to come, which started in earnest in 2002 and led me to the molecular harmony and sommellerie principle, which is based on the synergy between aromas when pairing food and wine and when creating a recipe.
Q: You have developed thorough theories and acquired a lot of practice too around, matching wine with food. Can you summarize your approach and some of the results of your years of research?
A: Ever since 1986, my harmonic research to understand wine and food pairing and cooking have led to the “molecular harmony and sommellerie” principle, a scientific field that I created between 2002 and 2004 and whose building blocks were published in volume 1 of my book Taste Buds and Molecules — The Aromatic Science of Food and Wine, which won the Best Cook Book in the World—Innovation Category award at the 2010 Gourmand World Cook Book Awards in Paris.
Here’s more information on my website about my theories and research:
Here’s a real-life example that is representative of the path that lead me to this science:
In 1990, I had to create a dish for some event that would pair with wines from Domaine de Trévallon. These wines had aromas of leather, liquorice and black fruit. I had to convince the chef at Sainte-Adèle’s Clef des Champs restaurant that he needed to add liquorice and blackberry liqueur to the sauce for the game dish. . .
He was initially very resistant to the idea, but he went ahead and tried it. Ever since, this sauce has become a classic.
It was the cornerstone of the aromatic monument that became molecular harmony and sommellerie and, 20 years later, the Taste Buds and Molecules book. . .
In fact, when I started my scientific research in 2002, I did so because there was not a single book nor any scientific data regarding food and wine pairing. I needed to understand, to chip away at the subjective nature of harmonies.
To my great surprise, I also managed to explain part of these harmonies between the ingredients of a dish with the same principle. That is what led me to frequently collaborate with several chefs including El Bulli restaurant’s chef Ferran Adria, in Spain, with whom I collaborated, from 2006 to 2009, on the creation of about 60 recipes inspired by my aromatic research.
Q: Can you tell us about your books: the ones you wrote, your latest ones and your upcoming ones? How can they help people learn and achieve better wine and food matches?
A: To this day, I’ve written 26 books, all of them concerning food and wine pairing and a few on cooking.
Since I published Taste Buds and Molecules in 2009, my books have allowed wine lovers and cooks to better understand harmonies between wines and dishes, as well as cooking, based on the synergy of aromas.
Taste Buds and Molecules is not as accessible because I needed to lay the scientific groundwork of this new theory that has since been confirmed by numerous Canadian, French, Spanish and American scientists. I’ve demonstrated the aromas are more important than the four traditional flavours—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami, for those who are aware of this fifth flavour—on which the world’s culinary and vinaceous heritage is founded.
Aromas are made of thousands of compounds—not just 4! —, which means that, unbeknown to us, they have a much greater impact on how we appreciate what we taste when we eat and drink.
My latest book, published in November 2015 is titled L’Essentiel de Chartier and summarizes, over 400 pages, the last 6 years of research since the launch of Taste Buds and Molecules. This book is destined to the general public as much as it is to chefs and professional sommeliers in as much as it lists, for each of the featured food, ingredient or liquid (wine, spirits, tea, coffee, etc.) the complementary foods and/or liquids which can be used to cook with and create a perfect aromatic pairing.
If, for example, if I tell you button mushrooms share an aromatic synergy with lavender: anyone at home can whip up a lavender-flavoured cream of mushroom soup.
But a chef will maybe prefer to create a dish of sautéed mushrooms in a lavender flaky pastry or accompanied by a lavender espuma (foam).
In the end, the flavours of the cream of mushroom and lavender will be the same.
Then if I tell you also that button mushrooms and lavender share dominant aromatic molecules with Rieslings and IPA-type beers, you might want to pick up a beer or wine that that you can afford and that will pair with those dishes.
It is the same principles that are applied to all of the ingredients and liquids featured in this reference book.
Q: On your website, you seem to have a wealth of dish recipes. Are you also a chef? Did you develop these recipes yourself?
A: As I’ve said earlier, I’ve studied the world’s cuisines since 1986, because you can’t become a sommelier if you don’t study cooking. Even though there aren’t always cooking classes in the sommelier curriculum. . .
So, yes, I cook and I’ve been creating recipes since 1992. But what I like the most is to be able to create recipes alongside the best chefs in their kitchens.
Over the past 5 years, I’ve created over 1500 recipes with my friend and partner in crime Stéphane Modat, executive chef of Québec City’s prestigious Fairmont Château Frontenac.
I think I’ve developed a “mental palate”, meaning that when I’m working on an ingredient or liquid, recipe ideas immediately pop into my mind. It’s been this way since the early 1990s.
As soon as I stick my nose in a wine glass, boom! Recipe ideas start popping into my mind.
The same happens when I’m in a market and I touch fresh mangoes, aged cheeses or white truffles.
Q: You also select wines that you sell under your own labels. I am having the pleasure of reviewing them at the moment and I have to admit having been happily impressed. What are those wines, and what’s your intent with them?
A: This first wave of wines created by and for the table aimed at simplifying wine and food pairing.
Their labels showed images of the ingredients belonging to the aromatic family which inspired each of them and which are the keys to preparing meals that are successfully paired with them.
“Historically, producers have come up with food and wine pairings after the elaboration of the wine. But thanks to my knowledge on this topic and the aromatic science I have created, I was able to elaborate my wines by thinking about the pairings before rather than after. To achieve this, I’ve selected, assembled, aged and bottled wines that shared an aromatic profile with a wide range of ingredients, thus facilitating a perfect harmony between them and my wines, making food and wine paring easy for everyone. And since my wines were created by and for the table, I made a choice of creating digestible and ready to drink wines, although they all offer a good bottle aging potential for maximum enjoyment with your meal and the expression of the typicality of the soils, climates, vintages and varietals, in other words, wines that are perfect examples of their appellation”.
Having criss-crossed the world to visit vineyards for the past 25 years, I’ve decided to create my own ranges of wines:
- two ranges are available at SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec)
- one exclusively at IGA Quebec supermakets
- another exclusive to Fairmont Château Frontenac as a private import
- and a fifth one is also on its way for another exclusive project
I’ve chosen to elaborate all of my ranges of wines with smaller but renowned wine growers and I collaborated with world renowned consulting Bordeaux oenologist Pascal Chatonnet who previously collaborated with me while I was writing my best-selling book Taste Buds and Molecules.
Q: You’ve been involved with all types of media during your career: television, radio, newspapers, books, etc. How do you approach new media and social media in particular today?
A: In less than ten years, social media gave way to unprecedented changes in how we access information about wines and gastronomy.
Social media has allowed the democratization of contents and how we communicate, which is a big plus in the world of wines and gastronomy.
The citizen-journalist effect is also noticeable in the domain of tasting notes, restaurant reviews, both positively and negatively. But in the end, those platforms allow professionals and communicators like you to reach a much wider audience spread all over the world.
Vinaceous information circulates more freely than ever before and this is to the ultimate benefit of wine consumers and lovers.
I’ve been present on social media almost from day one and it has allowed me to stay in touch on a daily basis with amateurs and professionals, something that would’ve been unimaginable 15 years ago.
Q: Finally, you would have travelled the whole world exploring the best tables and cellars around the globe. Yet, you’re based in Québec. How is the Montreal wine and food scene, and how does it compare with other great cities in the world?
A: Over the last 30 years Montréal and Québec have become major wine and food scenes, with nothing to envy to places like New York, Barcelona or Tokyo.
For sure, there are only 7 million people in Québec . . . but the quality of wine connoisseurs, especially since 1996, is amazing!
Wine producers from all over the world who visit Montréal are amazed to realize how eager to learn and sophisticated Québec’s wine amateurs are. Same in the food scene. Foodies are everywhere, and both in Montréal and Québec City, the restaurant scene is moving fast, on a high level of creativity.
We still have some way to go, but we already have an inspiring restaurant scene where all the great chefs of the world come for their holidays, or even to open a restaurant!
Find out more and all about François Chartier “Créateur d’harmonies” on his website FrancoisChartier.ca