Cheese & Wine?

Have you ever wondered where this seemingly perfect marriage of cheese & wine came from? Cheese is, after all, only one element of food in a typical (western) diet.  Albeit an absolutely delicious and uniquely satisfying one. As a die-hard cheese lover, I would certainly not belittle its place in gastronomy. The fact of the matter is though, the bulk of our nutrition and energy needs are served by other, more humble foods.  Which are also significantly enhanced in their flavor potential by a great matching wine.

Why is it then that cheese is often spoken of in the same breath as wine? I was excited when, at the recently concluded Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley, a session on cheese and wine pairing was sub-titled “Are we propagating myths”? To my inquisitive mind – and I am known to frequently question universally accepted truths, sometimes to embarrassing outcomes – there was excitement at the prospect of getting an answer to the question – why cheese and wine?

Alas, the myths that were discussed did not challenge that fundamental premise. Even more stunning was the revelation that the faculty for the session was stumped by my questioning along those lines, admitting to not having pondered that question before. But more on that later. First, here is an account of a fascinating class that is sure to enhance your own enjoyment of wine and cheese.

The session was led by Janet Fletcher and Tony Lawrence. The former a well-known cheese expert, journalist and author of books like “Cheese & Wine” and “The Cheese Course”, and the latter an accomplished chef- sommelier & wine judge from Philadelphia.

In a thoroughly engaging exercise, we were led through cheese and wine matches with four different cheeses – ranging from soft fresh cheeses to hard aged ones – with eight different wines, four dry and four sweet. Preliminary tasting tips from Janet were very helpful as we worked our way through the combinations. Here is some of what you need to consider:

– Intensity & acidity – try to match the intensity & acidity of the cheese and wine.

– Texture – creamy, granular or crumbly. Compliment or contrast. e.g Creamy cheese with a buttery, oaky Chardonnay

– Sweetness – some cheeses like Gouda have sweetness despite no sugar content. Might do well with a tart Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc

– Blue mold – tends to be tough on dry wines, making them taste metallic.

– Aromatics – there is little overlap between aromatics in cheese v/s wine. Be aware of this and find the most pleasing combination

– Terroir – matching cheeses & wines from the same region tends to work  well

– Relax & Enjoy. Don’t over analyze.

The contextual aspect of the pleasure from wine and cheese/ food pairings cannot be over emphasized. The same combination can offer a different experience depending on where you are, who you are with and under what circumstances. Balance the seriousness v/s playfulness of food & wine.

The recommended order of tasting is a sip of wine, followed by a piece of cheese and then a sip of wine again. The two experiences are separate but complimentary.

Amongst my favorite pairings was the Vermont Butter & Cheese Coupole – a goat’s milk cheese cured for six weeks, with the 2007 Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec. The bubbly, off-dry libation did wonders for the cheese and vice-versa.  The Shepherds Way Farm Big Woods Blue – a sheep’s milk blue in the Roquefort style posed some challenges and did not do great with the suggested 2009 Honig Sauvignon Blanc. It did come alive with the Bennett Lane After Feasting Desert Wine, affirming the popular notion of blue cheese and semi-sweet to sweet wines.

A writing exercise following the tasting encouraged participants to debunk a cheese & wine myth of their choice. Most chose the “red wine with the cheese course” presumption. I am completely on board with that one and agree that the acidity in white wines is the perfect foil for the richness of cheese and is a great palate cleanser between nibbles of cheese.

Finally, when the floor was opened for questions, I found myself tongue tied and refrained from asking what was on top of my mind. After all, I thought, I am a novice here amongst experts. Surely, everyone knew the history of “why wine & cheese”? I did go up to Janet afterwards, mainly to tell her how much I appreciated her books, and also to ask her “The Question” in the safety of a one-on-one conversation. I finally did pop the question.  She paused, thought contemplatively for a moment before responding with a “great question”, admitting to not having dwelt on it before.

If I had not already, I learnt, yet again, that there is nothing like a stupid question.

I have since developed a couple of theories on the subject. One is that wine growing regions of the world have typically also been cheese making cultures. Perhaps it was natural for them to combine the two. Seems like a stretch? Here is the other, more plausible one from Kevin Zrlay’s  “Complete Wine Course”, using the tea and coffee analogy. The addition of cream neutralizes tannins in those beverages. Wines – particularly red wines – also have high levels of tannin. Cheese is the perfect foil for them, with the dairy enhancing the enjoyment of the wine and vice versa.  Which theory do you subscribe to? Or maybe you have another? Let me know. And happy match-making.

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