When Tidings’ esteemed editor asked me if I could crib a few lines on matching wine and cheese, I said, “Sure. Love to.” Or words to that effect. What I was really thinking was, “Crap.” I mean, of all the words written about matching wine and food, has not more been written about the pairing of wine and that particular food called cheese? Did we really need to club this sorry (and rather dead) animal again? I doubted I could give readers anything more than what they no doubt already knew. (Those who get to the end of this piece may indeed very much agree that I should have acquiesced to my doubts. However, my editor asked for words, and words he would get. Plus, I needed the money.)
Manuals penned about the wine-and-cheese tango inevitably screech to the same conclusions: wine with cheese works. Or wine with cheese sucks. Or wine with cheese sorta works, but also sorta sucks. In other words, the jury’s out. To separate the curd from the whey, I decided to deviate from my usual method of researching — plagiarizing from the Internet and hoping nobody catches on (kidding, okay? Put the phone down) — and get ripe, ripped and stinky.
Carry on, whey-ward son
My first task was to assemble an impartial research staff. Men of courage and fortitude. Swashbuckling, cleft-chin types who could stare down even the most virulent Époisses and who would consider, if only for a moment, decommissioning their cell phones, PDAs, Crackberries, pagers, GPIs, subcutaneous implants, babel fish and other such “essential services” long enough to at least give a passing nod to the task at hand. Yes, it was daunting, and compromises, admittedly, had to be (and were) made.
Introducing the Curd Crew
Peter (“Pierre” when eating French cheese and drinking French wine). Bon vivant and man-about-the-world. Member of this guild, that society; covert Illuminati-like sects.
Distinguished, reprobate and irrefutable. Happened (against all odds) to be available on this particular Friday night.
Ian (still “Ian” when eating French cheese and drinking French wine. Unless his wife is present, in which case his name is “Eey-Yahn.” She’s French, ’nuff said). Linguist extraordinaire, professor to offspring of snooty upper-crust types and lover of all things French (including, presumably, his wife). Went out and bought the cheese. All French (except the Spanish one, probably purchased in error).
Fred (just “Fred,” no matter what state of libation, intoxication or excess). Great, great, great — grate — relation of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (so somehow responsible for the Great War). Agent representing wines of South Africa (brought a French Gewürztraminer to the event … likely so as not to offend Ian, though he would probably swear that Gewürztraminer originated in South Africa … or at least Austria). Looks like a Californian surfer (which was almost grounds for dismissal). Was also available, so we dismissed the dismissal.
The main event (aka le grand fromage massacre)
With a heap of fromages and a quiver of bottles, we set to work. Each went their own way. I chose the methodical, scientific and (up to a point) sober approach. Others went rogue. But we all came to (more or less) the same conclusions. Conclusions that, I might add, are highly unoriginal.
Red wines tend to work with hard cheeses (with exceptions).
White wines tend to work with soft cheeses (with exceptions).
Sweet wines tend to work with salty/blue cheeses.
At least one cheese worked with almost every wine. At least one cheese worked with almost none. And there was the occasional pairing that made us all take note, either because of its surprising harmony or its disgusting dissonance.
Please try this at home.
Te Kairanga Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Martinborough, New Zealand ($20)
A rather lame example of Sauv Blanc (at least by my standards), but it was all we had, so we made do. Green bean and grapefruit nuances; acidic and short.
William-Fèvre Champs Royaux Chablis 2005, Burgundy, France ($22)
Serviceable rather than stellar, with lemon, almond and mineral notes given a bit of heft from a kiss of wood aging.
Zind-Humbrecht Gueberschwihr Gewürztraminer 2005, Alsace, France ($35)
Classic rose petal, lychee and spice on the nose. Full-throttle, unctuous, concentrated and spicy in the mouth. Long and lingering. Terrific stuff.
Château Lilian Ladouys St-Estèphe 1990, Bordeaux, France ($30)
A beautiful St-Estèphe, sporting aromas of wet slate, smoke, cassis, black cherry, mild iodine and some herbaceous/leafy notes. Flavourful and somewhat austere. A Bordeaux made pre-“Parkerization” (a phenomenon that has turned most recent Bordeaux into Napa Cabernets).
Daniel Largeot Aloxe-Corton 2001, Burgundy, France ($50)
Proving once again that Burgundies can be a bit of a gamble, this specimen was a bit on the simple side. Sandalwood, raspberry and cherry cough drop on the nose; mid-weight with mild raspberry flavours. A typical if unspectacular Pinot Noir.
Château Rieussec 1988, Sauternes, France ($45/375 ml)
A great wine from a superb property. Fully mature and showing just a trace of oxidization on the nose that hinted at marmalade, toffee, dried fruit and mild acetate.
Henri Marie La Vignière Vin de Paille 2002, Côtes du Jura, France ($45/375 ml)
Courtesy of Pierre’s daughter Pasha (who wasn’t even at the taste-off). Where the hell she got this is anyone’s guess as it’s not something you trip across every day. Made with mat-dried grapes, it offered up a rich, ripe bouquet of sultana raisin and crème brûlée with a sweet yet exquisitely balanced palate.
Chabichou du Poitou (France)
Brie de Meaux (France)
Extra-Aged Manchego (Spain)
Bleu d’Auvergne (France)
How The Whole Deal Went Down
Got our goat
Goat’s cheese is supposed to be the ultimate foil for Sauvignon Blanc. Well, not really in this case. Paired with the goaty/nutty/earthy Chabichou du Poitou (an aged Loire Valley specimen, pronounced “shabby-shoe-due-pwa-too), it was merely so-so. Problem here (it seemed) was that the funky, somewhat complex style of the cheese didn’t really take to the dry, thinish, acidic wine. “The wine isn’t French,” was Ian’s defence. The Chablis, due to its additional weight, worked a little better. The Gewürz ploughed over it without mercy, leaving no trace of the cheese. Both red wines yielded frightful results. A tough cheese to match.
Brie de Meaux (named after the town where Ian’s wife was born and pronounced “bree-duh-moh”) has little to do with those tasteless, snowy hockey pucks sold as Brie in supermarkets. It’s funky, mushroomy, lactic, grassy and assertive. With the possible exception of the Bordeaux (which didn’t really get along with the cheese but at least played nice), none of the wines worked. At all. The dry whites were train wrecks. The Gewürz clashed horribly with the cheese rind, resulting in an enhanced mouthful of ammonia. The red Burgundy said nothing until the aftertaste. Then it said plenty. Nothing it said was printable.
It’s a wash
On to the Affidélice (pronounced “affy-del-lease”). We were after an oozing Époisses but came up empty-handed, so we opted for this Burgundian nose candy, which is essentially Époisses with the rind washed with Chablis rather than marc. Rich, runny, buttery, salty and mildly earthy, the dry whites got smothered by the creaminess. The Pinot was disastrous, with yeasty/leesy post-fermentation flavours clinging to the palate. The Bordeaux was so-so. The Gewürz rocked, with richness complementing richness, and the spice, fruit and alcohol slicing through the cheese’s creamy/salty notes. The big surprise (at least for me) was the pairing with Vin de Paille. An amazing combination that yielded flavours of cinnamon, clove and pumpkin pie; flavours completely absent in both the wine and the cheese. Awesome.
Failing the regional test
Continuing now with Comté (pronounced “con-tay”). This was a hard, nutty, relatively mild number that when paired with either of the dry whites rendered itself tasteless. The Gewürz was far too assertive and the Pinot turned into red water when mixed with this one. The Bordeaux went AWOL. The regional pairing of Comté and Vin de Paille was a flop: the wine was far too assertive for the cheese. No wine wanted to play with Mr Comté.
Manchego (Spanish for “everything goes”?)
The aged Manchego (pronounced “man-tchay-go”) turned out to be the most wine-friendly cheese of the lot. All the whites got along with it, if none proposing marriage. The Pinot once again went into neutral. (I’m starting to think that Pinot Noir is no friend of fromage.) The Bordeaux, however, was perfect. This pair really hit it off, playing to each other’s subtleties with neither being upstaged. Does this prove that well-aged cheese partners with well-aged wine? It’s a convincing argument.
Feeling blue? Try something sweet
Finally, the famous Bleu d’Auvergne (pronounced “bluh-doh-vergn”), music to the palate of blue-cheese lovers everywhere. Forget whites — even the Gewürz didn’t have much of a chance. The poor old Pinot kicked in with a hint of sweetness before kicking over, while the Bordeaux sulked having to play second fiddle. The Vin de Paille sorta worked — sweet and salty enjoying the affinity they usually enjoy. However, it was the classic match with Sauternes that proved to be nothing shy of spectacular, with the wine’s rich sweetness weaving though the creamy texture of the cheese, turning salt into sublime. Yum!
Be a cheese whiz
In the end, cheese, like wine, is a food with many styles, textures, flavours and nuances. Blanket statements like “cheese and wine enhance each other” or “cheese and wine tend to clash” only hold true for a limited number of good (and bad) combinations. Experimentation is key for discovering your favourites matches and having a lot of fun while making such discoveries.