Many people dismiss Riesling, some people refuse the noble grape. It reminds me of how some people feel about goat cheeses, the number one no-no I hear from people contemplating a selection of cheese. They will accept any type except for goat. Not that some people may have an aversion to Riesling the way some people have an aversion to goat cheeses, yet many people skip right over the Riesling section of a wine list and choose any other white wine instead. This aversion could be partly due to the many inferior versions produced from this grape; most of them produced in the past, thankfully.
One reason Riesling is often called a sommelier’s grape is because of its versatility with many foods, cheeses included. When few other wines make suitable matches for the different courses served to a party of four, Riesling may be the right call.
As with other varietals, it is a grape that can yield different styles, though in the case of Riesling especially, they will be recognizably “Riesling.” Rarely found in blends, it is aged in stainless steel more often than oak barrels. This gives a more recognizably “Riesling” aroma and flavor to the wines. The leaner vinifications will have their successes with lighter cheeses, while the bigger and botrytized versions will pair better with the bolder cheeses. Regardless, Riesling will come through for you more often than not.
By the way, if you happen to be someone who is not so fond of Riesling, try one of those stinky wash-rind cheeses with the orange rinds. No other varietal will match this family of cheeses nearly as well. You may become a new fan for Riesling.
Picholine restaurant’s guests who were considering a cheese course usually wanted to try a variety of cheese types (with my encouragement) and they usually wanted to try several (ditto); the average number being about five. Some people would have as many as nine or more cheeses, while a few guests wanted only one or two. Once the selection was determined the question arose, which wine to have with their cheese course. I recommended certain cheese types if they had wine in their glasses, or if they indicated a preference for a particular wine type. Usually however the focus was on the cheese selections, with wine as an after-thought. This was how most people approached this course – with the cheese selection preceding that of the wine.
This happens in other situations: the wine “person” counterpart asks me which cheeses I want to use at an event so they can select the wines around my choices. I let them know that the wines should be chosen first, as diplomatically as I can, that the wines should “drive the bus.” Besides, the cheeses tend to show up when they want to, whereas you can secure the wines well in advance.
A few Picholine diners asked for an appropriate “dessert” wine: port, Sauternes, Madeira sweeter Muscat, etc. Most people chose to stick with table wines, and if they did not already have a glass of something else they would usually ask for a red. Whenever this happened (which was very often) I would look over the several cheese types and think: that cheese pairs well with most Pinot Noirs, that one is better with Merlot, that cheese is nice with Cabernet Sauvignon, and that one does not work with any red, except maybe a Zinfandel. Ah yes, a Zinfandel, which would actually hold up well with all of those cheeses!
Zinfandel became the default red wine partner for those mixed groupings of cheeses. As I looked over my catalog of cheese and wine pairings, I found successful matches with a full range of cheese types: fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, goat, sheep, wash-rinds, bloomy rinds, Goudas, and blues. Several pairings were outstanding and only a very few disappointed.
Its twin sister, the Primitivo of southern Italy, has similar successes with cheeses, though not nearly as many as the California Zinfandels. This follows the relative successes for other varietals, those of the New World and those of the Old. The more austere styles of the Old World are just that, a little more austere compared to the more gregarious wines of the New.
Merlot had been largely relegated to the role of blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, even though it is the most widely planted varietal in France today. The varietal suffered from an identity crisis for many years, and it still does, to an extent. California has been planting more Merlot lately, to the point that it will soon be one of the largest growing regions in the world for this varietal. Notable successes of varying weights are coming from Napa alone.
As with most grapes, the Merlot has its unique demands from its growing regions, or you could say that it yields different styles depending on the qualities of the terroir where it is grown as well as the goal of the wine maker. This is why lighter Merlots pair a little better with some cheeses and the bigger Merlots line up a little better with others. Regardless of the resulting styles, Merlot in all its dimensions marries very well with many cheese types and it clashes badly with only a few. That being said, Merlot should not be taken lightly, even though it has a “light” red wine reputation. When the rare cheese clashes occur with Merlot it is important that we do not “blame” the cheese. The wine may be delicious and the cheese may be delicious but sometimes they do not get along. Like a great guy and a great gal, they are simply not compatible. People can easily blame the cheese. This is one reason why it helps to first assess cheeses and wines on their own.
Merlot is no pushover. The grape should not be taken for granted. Looking over our cheese pairings we find that 100% goat milk cheeses do not make the Merlot cut, though there are a few cheeses with some goat milk in the mix that pair okay. It would be interesting to see if the “no-goat” cohort among cheese lovers might also be Merlot fans. The blues can also challenge the Merlots somewhat. The elevated butyric acids in blues are part of the problem. Merlot wines are not noted for their acidity – sufficient acid to harmonize with the acid levels in most blues. The more fruit-forward Merlots can match some of the mellower blues nicely but even those matches are rare. On the other end of the pH scale, the thistle rennet sheep cheeses do not balance the Merlots so well; those cheeses (Serpa, Torta del Casar, Azeitão, Serena, etc.) have a little bitter note which the Merlots do not. This suggests that Merlots pair better with the cheeses that are more middle-of-the-road on the pH scale. Relative acidities influence the success of cheese and wine pairings.
Sauvignon Blanc in most of its expressions is a varietal I associate with warm weather more than any other. Refreshing, with citrus fruit aromas and flavors, most Sauvignon Blancs are inherently delightful paired with warm-weather cheeses, mostly the lighter styles. The grape grows in so many regions that you might expect that it can grow successfully anywhere. In fact, this varietal is particular, not only with where it is grown but also with which cheeses it is paired. When a Sauvignon Blanc finds a good match with a cheese it is invariably a very good match. Sauvignon Blanc pulls no punches. If a little Sémillon and/or Moscadelle is thrown in (as in white Bordeaux and some of the lovely whites of Napa valley) this changes the lineup of cheese partners somewhat, as does oak barrel fermentation (as in the Fumé Blancs).
The aesthetic relationships Sauvignon Blanc enjoys with cheeses are fairly easy to pick out: the balance of fruity and savory, the harmony of acids, and the overall size of flavors. The aromatic synergies between Sauvignon Blanc and different cheese styles may be a little less obvious, though at times I am reminded of lemon meringue pie. Technically, the acidity associated with the grape has a distinctive way of cutting though the butterfats in many cheeses.
Sauvignon Blanc seems to be so self-assured that you would think you can throw any old cheese its way and the wine will not suffer. This is precisely one reason why the disappointments can arise: the varietal usually yields wines that are not considered soft, wines that are perhaps a little less malleable with “bossy” cheeses. Other white wines such as those made with the Chardonnay grape have a relatively round mouth-feel; they are usually a little less acid and are more “forgiving” of demanding cheese partners. This is not to say that some Sauvignon Blancs cannot stand up to assertively flavored cheeses; they just do not occur as frequently. Some of the stronger cheeses can flatten a lovely Sauvignon Blanc down to insignificance.
This is why it is important to be careful with Sauvignon Blanc and cheese pairings. The go-to species of cheeses is goat, with the sheep cheeses following close behind. Many of the goat milk cheeses will start to come into their primes a little later in the spring. The mixed milk cheeses always seem to have an advantage with wine pairings, such as the Nettle Meadow Kunik, which is delightful on its own, even nicer with a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Some of the cow cheeses in the cheddar family marry well (largely to the harmony of the acids with this grape) and some of the wash-rind or aged Alpine styles can pair well too, if the Sauvignon Blanc has sufficient “fruit.”
I use to say that I thought that I was weaned on Chardonnay. For a go-to white wine, no other grape has come close. When people simply ask for a white wine, if any other varietal is included in the glass, I will bet that there may be a moment of hesitation, almost as though something might be a little “off.” Even for the A.B.C. (anything besides Chardonnay) crowd, the attractiveness of wines produced solely from this grape makes them hard to dismiss. By “attractiveness” I am referring to the grape’s many flavors and aromas, its supple mouth-feel, and its versatility with many foods. The Chardonnay wines can be so delicious that they can be enjoyed on their own. This is a quality that other varietals may also claim – that they can be enjoyed on their own – yet you can lose that appreciation for them more quickly than you can for the Chardonnays. Their wines seem to offer the complete “meal,” not just the beverage accompaniment quality. Some of those aromas and flavors can be found in other varietals, certainly, yet Chardonnay seems to have more of them.
You could say “No two Chardonnays are the same.” This would suggest a level of connoisseurship beyond the grasp of most individuals, even a bit of snobbery. Yes, they are different, yet they are unmistakably Chardonnay.
The appreciation for Chardonnay extends beyond the ease of its pronunciation. How many ways can you say “Chardonnay?” The name rolls of the tongue and the opportunities for rhyming with it are myriad. The relative ease of pronunciation reminds me of the name “Stilton.” This was the cheese guests requested most frequently during my Fromager tenure at Picholine restaurant. Far easier to pronounce than the French equivalent – Fourme d’Ambert – it may have given some diners a sense of connoisseurship, the recognition of a great cheese name. Interestingly, an old article in the Wine Spectator mentioned the success of pairing Stilton with Chardonnay. This sounded preposterous when I first read it, yet I admit that when I tried the two together, it turned out to be a good match. The success of this pairing was confirmed by participants in a Matchmaking Cheese & Wine class recently; the recognition of the successful pairing was virtually unanimous.
I clearly recall my first favorite red wine – a Napa ValleyCabernet Sauvignon. I still reach out for them; they are my default wines. My first favorite food was cheese and to this day, no other food comes close to satisfying nearly so well. Unconvinced by the pairings I found in print, I took my own detailed notes on how cheeses and wines complemented each other. I thought Cabernet Sauvignon was not recommended often enough; there appeared to be too few cheese partners, and when I found suggestions the pairings relied heavily on the terroir factor, as though the ideal cheese and wine partners would be limited to cheeses and wines produced close to one another.
It is important to note that an acre well-suited for a wine making is usually used for that: producing grapes. Sometimes there is a dairy nearby so parts of that terroir factor may be supported, yet there is so much that goes into wine making, and arguably, there is at least as much that goes into dairying. To say that because they are produced side by side is just a little too easy. The cheeses and wines crafted close to one another can actually clash. As an example of one of those clashes I think of some of the Loire Valley chèvres of western France. There are three white wine varietals grown nearby that marry well with this family of cheeses: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and to an extent, the Melon de Bourgogne. You also find one of Cabernet Sauvignon’s parents produced in the area – Cabernet Franc. The Chinon made from this grape is cited as a good partner for those cheeses, yet most people seem to find this pairing to be very disappointing.
When I began experimenting with cheese and wine pairings I wanted to find as many matches as possible for my beloved Cabernet Sauvignon. I branched out to far-flung regions to find suitable cheese partners. From what I found it appears that the Cabernet Sauvignons prefer cow cheeses, which is a good thing since more than 90% of the world’s cheeses are produced from cow milk. The sheep milk cheeses can pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon, as they do with most varietals, and then there are the occasional goat cheese successes.
These contests give us opportunities to witness other experts go through their different judging processes. Some judges take longer to assess the appearance of the cheese surface, while others spend more time assessing the paste. Some judges take a whiff of the fresh sample, then a second whiff, and then contemplate the aroma for a full minute before proceeding to the taste. For most judges, the taste matters most, and for a full assessment of the taste the judge must wait up to a full minute after the cheese is in the mouth to evaluate the full profile of a cheese. It is that imprint on the cognitive receptors that gives judges their final evaluations of a cheese. For some judges, the texture is almost as important quality as the taste.
One of the judges, Russell Smith who is a veteran cheese expert from Australia, told me that the texture is all-important. I agree; so many cheeses seem to have a nice appearance, a pleasant fresh milk aroma, even a balanced flavor, but the texture disappoints. For many of the categories he was judging, like almost all of my categories, there were several cheeses that had this flaw: a pasty, gummy, or mealy texture. As Russell and I agreed, this rubbery texture may not be considered a flaw by some consumers however the experience of tasting a cheese which has the appropriate texture for its class is an experience that you will not forget. I know of no cheese for which a pasty texture is desirable. I tasted many cheeses that had a well-balanced flavor yet their textures were weak.
Assistant Chief Judge Stan Dietsche, in his introductory remarks explaining the judging process, recommended the judges approach tasting each cheese with a certain reverence. He compared the proper approach to a two-minute love affair. That remark reminded me of one of our core classes – Sexy Cheese. Stan’s advice brought laughter from the judges, but his point was fully understood. This is certainly the approach my judging colleague Roland Barthélemy takes. Roland, who is president of the Guilde des Fromagers, takes in the full view of each new cheese he tastes, his eyes wide in wonderment. You can see his nose twitch slightly in anticipation. Yet he sizes the cheese up very carefully, all around its surfaces, before he focuses on the aroma. The judges take core samples with their cheese triers, hold the core sample up to their noses, and take in the full aroma. Roland has a distinctive flare to this process. He receives the tool used to extract the sample (the trier) as though he is receiving a sacred relic. He holds the sample up to his nose and sniffs the length of the sample. He turns his head to exhale then he goes through the exact same process again.
The usual process followed in cheese competitions involves taking in the cheese appearance, then the aroma, then the flavor, then the texture or mouthfeel, then you wait for the “finish.” That final aromatic profile is what “seals-the-deal” in the evaluation. Everything else may be fine, but the finish sometimes disappoints.
Again, the texture is very important. This contest lists twenty possible texture defects a judge can assign, with a couple of open spaces for any others. I recall going through several wheels of Appenzeller (one of my favorites) and finding good rinds, nice aromas and flavors (though slightly different, one wheel to the next) but when I got down to the texture critiques, I found myself checking off little deductions for the same “flaws.” Nearly all of them had a “pasty” and/or “gummy” texture, nearly all of them, unlike the Appenzeller we proudly offer. One of our sayings around here has been “Taste the Difference.” I would extend that to “Taste and Feel the Difference.” That two-minute love affair should last much longer, and the cheese’s texture helps make that happen.
The 2012 Wisconsin World Championship Cheese Contest concluded March 7th with a record number of entries from around the world – over 2,500. Of the sixteen finalists, seven of them were from the U.S. As usual, Switzerland had several finalists, Canada and Spain each had one, Holland had two; one of the Dutch cheeses won Best in Show – a low-fat Gouda. There were 93 categories in the competition; which gives an idea of how many different directions fermented milk can go.
A couple of cheeses were entered and did not fit into any one of those 93 categories! They defaulted into Open Class Hard. At first they were placed in one of the categories I was judging – Gruyère, however that would not have been fair; even though it looked like a Gruyère, it was a similarly made cheese from another part of Switzerland.
The logistics involved in gathering 2,500 cheeses from around the world, assigning them numbers, separating them into their groups, gathering the international team of judges, working with the convention center, etc., is a huge undertaking. I can say that the planners, coordinators, and volunteers for this contest are a dedicated and hard-working group. The warm and generous Wisconsin hospitality is unsurpassed. If you aren’t use to experiencing it you might think it is a little surreal. Perhaps it is partly all the cheese they eat; I know it can’t hurt. (For more on that phenomenon, come to our Cheese & Wine 201.)
At this competition (like most others) the judges are first assembled for an introduction and brief training seminar. These opening sessions are always thrilling. You may meet other cheese experts from other parts of the world, or you see old acquaintances you rarely see. Even though most all of the judges have judged in at least one other contest, the procedures and scoring systems are a little different. The judges are teamed up in pairs usually, to go through the process: assessing cheeses within the categories they are assigned, and scoring them by deducting points for flaws, or adding points for positive attributes. This may sound a little subjective, assigning the attributes, but there are commonly accepted standards for different types of cheeses. This is a full-time job for cheese graders.
Most of the competitions that I have judged ask what types of cheeses you feel you are best qualified to judge. Some judges are very familiar with cheddars, while others are much more familiar with blue cheeses, for example. The judging committee then assigns the judges to the groups of cheeses they claim to know best. Some styles of cheeses are much more popular than others, so teams of judges invariably end up with at least one group of cheeses they would rather skip. Nevertheless, the judges go through the judging process as professionally as they can, and evaluate the entries for the qualities that represent the class best.
I was very fortunate to be assigned categories I believe I know well – categories I also enjoy. My judging partner, Samir Kalit from the University of Zagreb, listed the same styles as his strengths: the hard sheep cheeses, Gruyère, Appenzeller, and soft and semi-soft sheep cheeses. We also got another category a little outside our expertise: flavored soft/semi-soft mixed milk cheeses.
The judges are usually advised to arrive at their own decisions independently. If their scores are widely different after the evaluations, they can compare notes and consider the flaws and attributes jointly. This process can take as little as five minutes for each cheese, or as many as ten. If a cheese has several defects, the judging process can go fairly quickly: deducting points for each of the flaws (which usually mean there will be fewer attributes in aroma/flavor and texture) and coming up with an appropriate score. We found it a little amusing that our scores were almost identical, from one cheese to the next. Our scores were often exactly the same value, or only different by a tenth of a point.
The cheese maker looks to the judge for specific comments, and some suggestions on what might be done to improve the cheese. When the cheese has fewer defects and the aesthetic attributes are pleasing, the evaluation and scoring can take a little longer. Every time I taste one of those outstanding cheeses I am reminded of a question I am frequently asked: “What is your favorite cheese”?
All in all, the cheese we were very good to excellent. Even though there were about 2,500 cheeses entered, there are thousands of other fine cheeses being produced today. One of the great cheeses that did enter the contest in the Hard Sheep category was Royale (formerly known as Stella Royale), though if you did not already know this cheese you might not recognize it by the producer’s generic label. This has been one of my favorite cheeses since the first time I tasted it. It was in great form so it scored very high in a crowded field.
I was so impressed by the Wisconsin World Championship Cheese Contest’s judging criteria that I will be using a similar scoring system for the students in our “Best in Show” classes. I thought it would be a great way to introduce cheese evaluation in a fun, interactive, and elevated level for cheese lovers.
We may consider Pilsners to be on the light side of the beer spectrum but this does not mean they should be taken lightly. When it comes to pairing them with cheeses the Pilsners can hold their own with some of the big guns, stinky cheeses included.
The water used to produce the best Pilsners is softened; this helps give them clarity and it allows the hop aromas and flavors to come forth. These distinct aromas and flavors is what give Pilsners their heft, while the alcohol contents of most of them remain moderate. This hop-forwardness of Pilsners can present pairing challenges to some of the milder goat cheeses, whereas other less flavorful lagers can meld pretty well with that family of cheese types.
Not to over-analyze it but we want to mindful of the potential for mismatches, particularly when they occur with goat cheeses. The goat cheeses can clash with some beverage partners, while on the other hand, the good goat cheese matches can be sublime. When the clashes do occur we just want to make sure that we donâ€™t blame the goat! Goat cheeses have been much-maligned long enough. As I have noted over the years, the first no-no I get from people contemplating a selection of cheeses is the avoidance of goat.
The second no-no we hear when people select their cheeses is to skip the blues; almost as many people shy away from the blue cheeses as those that skip the goats. On the blue (strong) end of the cheese spectrum is where the Pilsners may also falter. For most cheese categories in between these two bookend cheese types, the milder goats and the big bad blues, Pilsners perform admirably. To savor the finer qualities in a Pilsner you may want to skip over the blues.
If we skip the mild young goat cheeses and the blues (but do not entirely write either of them off) we can find a broad grouping of cheeses that are Pilsner friendly: most cows, some sheep cheeses (which tend to be versatile with more beverages anyway) and some mixed milk cheeses. The pressed sheep milk cheeses such as the Bianco Sardo, Ossau Iraty, or Stella Royale have their own full aromas that can balance the aromas in the Pilsners.
There are a couple of other cow cheese categories that fit the bill: the cheddar types and the cooked curd or Gouda types. The success with the Pilsners can be attributed to the â€œsharpnessâ€ in those cheeses: the acid, the salt, as well as the texture. When you have all these pronounced qualities in cheeses a chilled Pilsner can be just the ticket. The Gouda, 4 y.o.; the Roomano; the Terraluna or the Quickeâ€™s Cheddar; any of these leave a happy ending in the mouth and tummy.