Like winemaking, cheesemaking is both art and science. Do wine and gourmet cheese match well together?
The denouement of many a dinner over the Christmas holidays this year will be a bottle of port and a round of blue cheese like stilton. This combination represents a classic British pairing of one of the country’s most famous cheeses and the fortified wine created by the British in Portugal. The two work so well together because the subtle sweetness of the wine is balanced by the pungent saltiness of this creamy blue cow’s milk cheese.
The UK gave us traditions such as injecting port into the cheese, or pouring some into the cheese in a specially prepared cavity. Many would find such practices apocryphal, believing the two should be enjoyed together but not that together. The cheese can be sliced, or it can be scooped but, insists Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop, a top cheese producer: “Port should never be poured into the centre of the cheese.”
Most would say the same about the alleged practice of pouring champagne into the concave of Langres, a cheese from the Champagne Ardenne region which has enjoyed AOC status since 1991. It is a semi-soft, slightly stinky cow’s milk cheese, somewhat like Epoisses but milder. It is fantastic with champagne or any acidic sparkling wine, as the wine brings out the salty and savoury nature of the cheese – which makes you want to drink another glass! A well-aged Parmesan straight from the wheel is also marvellous with champagne.
Sancerre with goat’s cheese, and foie gras with Sauternes are two more classic matches. But wine and cheese pairing is actually something of a minefield. As a general principle, white wine works better, but there are certain to be plenty of delightful surprises, such as we find by accident at the dinner table in general: Slightly acidic red wine with Sichuan cooking, for example.
Sometimes the regional food-and-wine matches are the best: Sangiovese and the tomato-based pasta sauces of Tuscany, or Portuguese leitao assado da Bairrada (roast suckling pig) with a sparkling red made with the local Baga grape. But a French or Italian cheese can just as likely cross the globe and pair beautifully with a wine from China’s up-and-coming Ningxia region.
As with all food and wine pairing, a number of effects can be achieved. There might be a perfect marriage where the wine and food meld and complement each other. There might a holding of hands, whereby the wine and food don’t much change each other. There might also be a divorce, in that, for example, the food strips a red wine of everything but its tannins, or a white wine of everything but its acid. Cheese and wine pairing is in general looking for balance over contrast – a gentle conversation – and pleasingly, the wine does not necessarily have to be deeply elegant or sophisticated.
The Spanish grape Mersequera will probably never be crafted into a really stylish wine. It is not particularly aromatic, and the citrussy notes which might emerge are coaxed out through a very slow fermentation. It does not give marked texture, but it does have good acidity. Sip Santa Barbera Merse 2013 (100 per cent Merseguera, grown in Valencia) with Sant Gadea, a goat’s cheese from what is touted as Europe’s only 100 per cent sustainable and organic farm, in Castilla y Leon.
A creamy cheese with a touch of tartness at the back, it is not particularly “goaty” and smells of mushrooms, hazelnuts and herbs. The wine comes into its own. Even lacking texture it stands up to the cheese and perfectly cleanses the palate between bites. The cheese lends the wine a certain roundness in the mouth. Cheese can also act as a bridge between an acidic white wine and salad: goat’s cheese on a bed of beetroot and green leaves, for example.
Many would cite grapes such as Chardonnay and Viognier, which usually produce full-bodied wines, as perfect partners to cheese (and Gewurztraminer is for example a lovely match for fondue – a dish which is apparently coming back into fashion). But would a big Napa Chardonnay kill a cheese? Rutherford Hill Chardonnay 2012 saw 25 per cent new oak, but a cheese such as the Irish Gubbeen, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese with lightness of aroma, flavour and texture, brings out heightened butter flavours in the wine, rather than oaky ones. The wine removes the “edges” of the cheese for a clean and refreshing finish. Oaked wines can be great with smoked cheese.
For pairing with red wine, beyond port which is almost always good, here are a few pointers. Sangiovese, because it is a bit acidic and a touch rustic, can pair with one of the milder blue-veined cheese. Pinot Noir can work with a mild cheese such as Brie. And, finally, what of Cabernet Sauvignon? The concept that tannins can be tamed with high-fat foods would suggest that cheese is perfect. However, pairing a big wine with a big cheese is not the route to take. The cheese and the wine should not compete, so Cabernet Sauvignon likes a gentle cheese like Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert or, for another cheese treat, melted raclette oozing over new potatoes.