Sangiovese is a varietal we often overlook; it could be partly because there were many inferior wines produced from this grape in the past, or because it is often blended with other high-pedigree varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, diluting its own characteristics. It has been blended with other varietals to yield some delicious wines. However part of the appeal of Sangiovese is its easy-drinking character, its graceful acceptance of other varietals in the mix, and its harmony with many foods, cheeses included.
Some Sangiovese successes have been noted recently in Napa yet the grape does not seem to grow quite as successfully much of anywhere else outside Tuscany, so it may also suffer from a lack of recognition on the worldwide stage. We are offering Sangiovese wines in more classes here at the Artisanal Cheese Center, not only the classes focused on Italian cheeses and wines, but in other classes too. This will allow us to pair our cheeses produced outside Italy with several Sangiovese wines. As the weather warms up, Sangiovese is sounding rather appealing, like a nice bottle for a picnic, accompanied by a little cheese and a crusty baguette.
Fortunately, some of the many cheeses that happen to pair well with Sangiovese make good picnic cheeses: goat, sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses; from the lighter styles all the way up to and including some blues. These are some cheeses we have enjoyed with this varietal recently:
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.
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.
One of our customers is the award-winning luxury cruise line Radisson/Seven Seas. Among their more popular cruises are the “Spotlight on Food and Wine” packages. With superior quality food and beverage on their ships, the company has been rated at the top in the industry. So, of course, to find the best cheese they come to Artisanal.
The passengers on these cruises are drawn to them in large part because they are truly interested in fine food and wine and want to learn more about the wonderful world of gastronomy. The acclaimed cooking school Cordon Bleu has a big presence on this line in the Signatures restaurants and in classes for the passengers. Guest chefs, wine makers, and other experts present lectures, tastings, and cooking demos during the cruises.
Again this year, I had the recent pleasure of presenting a couple of seminars on the Mariner. For the first session, a Cheese and Wine 101 class, we prepared plates of six cheeses to be paired with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir from Hawley wines in Sonoma. Expecting a good turnout for the class of around 80 passengers the service crew set out 100 plates of cheeses just to make sure. Many of the passengers arrived early for the seminar but at the appointed hour the guests just kept on coming! Orders went back to the galley requesting more cheese! Orders went also to the desktop publisher on board to quickly print more tasting sheets. The sommeliers uncorked more bottles of wine. I began the discussion of the basic principles of pairing cheeses with wines and gave short descriptions of each of the cheeses we would be sampling. John Hawley, the proprietor and wine maker of Hawley wines introduced his wines and we then began the actual tasting.
Nearly 150 people, almost one fourth of the passengers on board, sat down to the Cheese and Wine seminar in the main dining room — The Compass Rose! Other programs competing for guests attention at the same time included a lecture on gemstones and one on bridge, a fitness class on tightening and toning the lower body, shuffleboard or golf chipping on deck 12, checkers on the garden promenade on deck 6, the Carita Spa on 7, and the swimming pool on deck 11!
The cheeses we tasted, chosen to illustrate the synergies between cheeses and two different wine types, were: Garrotxa: goat’s milk from Spain, Amarelo da Beira Baixa — sheep and goat’s milk from Portugal, Mahón — cow’s milk from Menorca, Vacherin Fribourgeois — cow’s milk from Switzerland, Gouda (4 y.o.) — cow’s milk from Holland, and Crater Lake Blue — cow’s milk from Rogue River Creamery in Oregon. Each participant was given a score sheet to assess the relationship each cheese had with each wine.
Afterwards, with other programs starting around the ship and the dining room crew anxious to reset the room for lunch service, several of the guests came up with more specific questions about cheese and about cheese and wine pairing. From that point on the remainder of my time on board the Mariner seemed to be an endless flow of cheese talk. We had hoped to have a little extra cheese for the cheese boards in the dining rooms that evening, but it was pretty much all gone.
Two days later, the second seminar on cheese focused on cheese making methods, the history of cheese, and the nutritional values of cheese, and coincidentally, on the relationship of 6 different cheeses to 2 different wines — a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, California. The cheeses were: Majorero — goat’s milk from the Canaries (I thought a maritime cheese would work well on board the Mariner sailing in the Pacific), Beyos — cow’s milk from Spain, Cheshire — cow’s milk from England (with a marine tang), Serena — sheep milk from western Spain, Appenzeller — cow’s milk from eastern Switzerland, and Harbourne Blue — goat’s milk from England.
This seminar was scheduled for later in the day when the weather was more likely to draw passengers to the pool. And coinciding with cheese time we had a Blackjack tournament in the casino, the Incredibles on the big screen, bridge, shuffleboard, crafts, needlepoint, a harp seminar, tea time with a view, and Pilates. So naturally, a thinner attendance was predicted, but again, to our surprise, we had nearly 140 people!
The Executive Chef, Quinn McMahon, asked if I would do a little Cheese 101 seminar for the Food and Beverage crew late that night after most of the passengers had retired. Tired as they had to have been, we again enjoyed a huge turnout of some particularly curious Chefs, Sommeliers, and other dining room staff!
It was amazing to see the response that the cheese seminars had. I thought to myself upon debarkation “next time we’ll need more cheese!”
Food and Wine Magazine ran an article on one of those Spotlight cruises on the same Mariner ship in the July issue last year entitled “Boat Camp”. Written by Abe Opincar and enhanced by the photography of Lucy Schaeffer, “Boat Camp” is available in our site’s In the News section.