Wine and Cheese
The current state of cheese, and how to pair wine with it
From Wine Spectator magazine
NOVEMBER 17, 2007 (www.winespectator.com) - The cheese course has arrived. Virtually unheard of 15 years ago, it's now commonplace in serious restaurants across the nation. American diners are embracing this European-style addition with enthusiasm. But unlike Europeans, who tend to focus on their local cheeses, Americans will try anything from anywhere. Restaurants and gourmet retailers across the country stock cheeses from all over Europe, plus new American varieties made by committed artisans from Vermont to California.
We've clearly come a long way in just a generation. But America was not exactly a cheese wasteland 20 years ago. Despite the dominance of industrially made supermarket cheeses sealed in plastic, there were always shops that specialized in selling better stuff, mostly from France and England. But even they could not get high-quality cheeses like those selected and finished by Neal's Yard Dairy in England or Jean d'Alos in France, both of which are now finally available in the United States.
Early on, through most of the 1980s, emerging artisan cheesemakers from Coach Farm in New York to Ku'oko'a Farm in Hawaii were most successful with goat cheeses. Among the best was Capriole in Indiana, which developed a big following in the top restaurants of Chicago, especially for its dense, creamy, sphere-shaped Wabash Can- nonball. Another early success was Sally Jackson's Cheese in a remote northeastern corner of Washington (where she also makes sheep's milk cheeses).
But it's Laura Chenel who gets credit for inaugurating the goat cheese era. She went to France in 1979 to learn how to turn the milk from her own goats into cheese. Alice Waters started serving Chenel's cheese at Chez Panisse, and thus began a trend for garnishing salads, pizzas and just about anything else with dabs of fresh goat cheese. Wolfgang Puck's restaurants still use Chenel's cheese. She makes chèvre and the more complex Taupenière, a bloomy-rind variety that becomes creamy after six to eight weeks of aging.
In the 1990s, Americans finally got the hang of making cheese from sheep's milk, which is responsible for such European classics as Roquefort from France, Pecorino Toscana from Italy and Manchego from Spain.
Despite all this recent experience with cheese, we Americans are still figuring out how to make the cheese course work for us—in particular how to enjoy it with wine.
Choosing the Cheese
Cheese shares a long list of parallels with wine. Like wine, cheese is fermented to create something entirely different and infinitely more complex than the raw material it's made from. Like wine, cheeses age until they reach a point of perfection, then go downhill. Cheeses come in a wide range of styles, each with its own set of characteristics. They taste of terroir.
France, Italy, Spain and other countries have appellations of origin for cheese, just as they do for wine. Farmstead cheese—made from the milk of the cheesemaker's own animals—is comparable to estate-bottled wine made from the winemaker's own grapes. Artisanal cheesemakers also buy top-quality milk to handcraft their products, just as high-quality négociants use grapes bought from serious growers.
Despite these similarities, and despite the widespread belief that cheese and wine are natural partners, matching them up is not at all simple. The most extraordinary cheeses—the runniest, stinkiest, most intense in flavor—can overwhelm the nuances of a fine red wine and even make it unpalatable. In fact, the wine that works best is usually white, not red, and often sweet, not dry. Those who deal with cheese and wine every day know that the odds are much better with white wines.
And yet the red wine and cheese combination has such a hold on the imagination that it's difficult to dislodge, even in France, where top chefs have been telling people for years that they're best off enjoying cheese with white wine. On a visit to Burgundy a few years ago, I asked everyone I met about their favorite cheese and wine pairings. The first response was always to name a great vintage of red Burgundy and an odorous, sticky cheese like Epoisses. But then most would concede, "If I have a few sips of the white wine left from an earlier course, that's always the best."
one looking for simple guidelines for cheese-and-wine matching is likely to find contradictory advice. Partly, that's because every rule has its exceptions. For example, the closest thing to unanimity among cheese mavens might be the recognition that tart, fresh goat cheeses love fresh, tangy wines such as Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Sancerre from the Loire. Occasionally, however, a wine that shouldn't work, such as a rich, dense Côte-Rôtie, will taste just great with a zingy little chèvre.
Veteran cheese-and-wine matchers have learned to play the odds. As a rule, Champagne likes soft-ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert, Sherry and Madeira go well with cheeses sporting more aggressive flavors, and blue cheese cozies up best to sweet wines. The moldy flavors in blue cheeses make red wine taste metallic and bitter to half the population. The other half loves the combination. If you want to stack the odds in your favor, drink a sweet wine. Sauternes with Roquefort is a classic. So is Port with Stilton.
And that half-full bottle of great Bordeaux still on the table after the main course? Go for a mellow, firm-textured, aged cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Comté, a Pyrenees sheep-milk cheese or a California dry Jack.
As with all food-and-wine matching, many cheeses can go deliciously with a specific wine. But certain types make natural partners, either because they share regional associations or they have worked well in personal experience. Age of a wine is less of an issue than its level of subtlety. Because strong cheeses can rob more complex wines of their nuances, simpler wines generally go with a wider range of cheeses. Use the following list as a starting point.
Barolo and Barbaresco: hard types, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano
Bordeaux (red): hard types, especially Pyrenees mountain cheeses
Bordeaux (white): soft and goat types, especially crottin and other aged goat cheeses
Burgundy (white): hard types, especially Garrotxa and Comté
Burgundy (red): hard types, especially Tomme de Savoie
Cabernet Sauvignon: hard types, especially dry Jack or aged Cheddar
Champagne and sparkling wine: soft types, especially Brie, Camembert, Reblochon
Chardonnay: see Burgundy (white)
Chianti (and other Sangiovese- based Tuscan reds): hard types, especially Pecorino Toscano
Gewürztraminer (dry): soft or hard types, especially washed-rind cheeses such as Livarot
Gewürztraminer (sweet): extreme types, especially Munster
Merlot: hard types, especially dry Jack
Pinot Noir: see Burgundy (red)
Port: blue or extreme types, especially Stilton
Riesling (dry): soft types, especially Reblochon
Riesling (sweet): soft or extreme types, especially Epoisses
Rioja: hard types, especially Garrotxa or Cheddar
Sauternes, Barsac and late- harvest Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc: blue types, especially Roquefort
Sauvignon Blanc (dry), Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé: goat types, especially fresh chèvres
Sherry (dry): hard types, especially Cheddar and Garrotxa
Sherry (sweet): blue and extreme types, especially Cabrales
Syrah (including red Rhônes): hard types, especially Pyrenees mountain cheeses
Very sweet dessert wines (such as Australian liqueurs, Pedro Ximénez Sherry): extreme types, especially Taleggio
Viognier: soft or hard types, especially Camembert or Tomme
Zinfandel: hard types, especially dry Jack or aged Gouda