Did you forget that yesterday was German Beer Day? You may have thought the beer celebrations only take place in October. Not according to our German beer expert Freddy Bohn. According to Freddy there is a reason to celebrate the superior beers of Germany every single day of the year, though there is this one day in particular – April 23rd – that is marked on the calendar recognizing this near-perfect beverage, especially by German brewers. It was this day, exactly 497 years ago, that the Reinheitsgebot was implemented. Perhaps you have already read the beer chapter in my new book, Mastering Cheese, which delves into its history. You can hear Mr. Bohn explain the significance of this law while we enjoy a generous helping of his country’s finest at this Sunday’s German Beer class.
Along with hearing him speak about the Reinheitsgebot while enjoying distinguished Biere, we will also get to understand their superior pairing capacities with great cheeses. Speaking of cheese, did you know that Germany produces more cheese than France? Their output is second only to the United States.
When we think of noble grape varieties, there are few that surpass the expectations demanded of Pinot Noir. The range in textures found in Pinot Noir is wide, the perfume is variable, yet the typical “Pinot” flavors are a little more predictable, flavors being flavors.
Pinot Noir has been called a sommelier’s grape. This is partly because it makes for a pleasant wine in most cases and it agrees with many foods. To “agree” with many foods is one thing, to “love” a food is quite another. And so it is with cheeses. Pinot Noirs seem to get along fairly well with many cheeses (except for most goats and most blues) yet it rarely falls head over heels with any type. Might it be said that this grape is comfortable in its own thin skin?
Some of the fruitier wines of this grape have greater success with the more assertive cheeses but a Pinot Noir that can stand up to a blue cheese is a rare sighting. I urge caution with that exercise; you will not want to shatter your gorgeous Pinot Noir with a bossy blue cheese. Once you have introduced that blue in the mouth, your wine will never be the same. However if you want to grow your catalog of successful cheese pairings for this varietal I recommend that you experiment with as many cheese types as you can find, keeping in mind that the pairings are more about the synergies between the cheese and the Pinot Noir, and less about the assessment of either partner. Putting cheeses and wines together can dramatically alter one’s appreciation for a cheese or a wine. The pairing principles apply to Pinot Noir no less than they do to other varietals: balance of fruity and savory, harmony of acidities, relative “size” of flavors of each, the complementing textural components, and the confluence of aromatics.
There are some notable cheese surprises to be realized with Pinot Noir. One blue cheese that actually performs rather well with a Burgundy Pinot is Roquefort. Granted, the Roquefort is outstanding and most Burgundy Pinot Noirs are no slackers either. The salt in the Roquefort contributes to the success of this match. Salt has a distinct way of highlighting the fruit in wines.
Another surprise I discovered with Pinot Noirs years ago was how well they paired with cheddars. Some say that cheddar is best paired with beer. Would that be because wines (Pinot Noirs included) did not have successful plantings in cheddar’s native land, southwest England? A little shortsighted, I say.
Remember to be careful with the goat cheeses and the blues! These families of cheeses can take the fun out of your Pinot Noir. This likable varietal finds its preferred cheese partners in the middle part of the CheeseClock™.
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 trust that you know that cheese is a near-complete food, a delicious food that offers a full range of nutrients, pretty much everything except for vitamin C and fiber. This is one reason why cheese pairs so well with fruits. It is more than the aesthetics, it is a valuable nutritional consideration as well. Cheese has a way of satisfying us before we have consumed enough calories. This is one of several ways that cheese can help you lose weight â€“ that you can reach satiety before you have sufficient calories. You can pick up a few extra calories from the fruit, but for those of us who prefer to have our fruit in the morning, what is our other calorie choice for the rest of the day?
This is where the beer comes in. It is the aesthetic partner, and one that provides some of those make-up calories. Beers have their fruity flavors, some have more than others. These flavors can be hidden when a beer is high in the IBUâ€™s (international bittering units) but the â€œfruitâ€ is still present, or it should be. These flavors help give cheese and beer that potential for matching aesthetically.
We tasted a pilsner with a range of cheeses recently. No two pilsners are the same, of course. This one was a little heavier than most; it was more of a German style of Pilsner. The hops were more dominant so you might consider this a medium-flavored beer. The first cheese in the mix that stood out with this beer was a perfectly ripened Coulommiers. The buttery paste wrapped around the pilsner, hops included, and dissolved into a lip-smacking delicious finish. Sometimes these bloomy rind cheeses (bries, camemberts, double-crÃ¨mes and triple-crÃ¨mes) can leave a little metallic edge so I was not sure how this would play out, though I do recall finding some nice matches between IPAâ€™s and other bloomy rind cheeses. The bitter is a distinguishing feature in beers; it provides a sort of â€œbackboneâ€ for beers. Yet that bitter can also dominate lighter flavored foods, lighter cheeses included.
Speaking of buttery, the Bianco Sardo is so buttery; some would say that it is more â€œgreasyâ€ than buttery. This may not sound like a flattering description, that is until you take into account that the â€œgreasyâ€ includes some delicious butterfats, butterfats that also happen to be very good for you, inside and out. This toothsome oily cheese melded in full well with the beer. With just the right amount of salt, it dissolved into the pilsner gracefully and left a little meaty note.
Next up was Edwinâ€™s Munster â€“ a cheese type (wash rind stinker) that is often paired with lagers and pilsners. Even with the extra hops, this pairing was delightful. It is a wonderful cheese on its own, so it would be surprising if it did not meld well with any beer. Made with unpasteurized delicious milk, with just a little salt, and a good amount of umami; this is a most satisfying cheese: tangy, creamy, warm and savory. The pilsner broke up the paste of this cheese into a stringy texture which reminded me of a perfect fondue.
The Cheddar, aged two-years, was a no-brainer; always is. Any style of beer seems to favor good cheddar. The acid and the semi-hard texture of cheddar give this pairing a nod â€“ the â€œploughmanâ€™s lunch.â€
The Andeerer Schmuggler; it even sounds like a beer cheese. A German fan of this cheese would drive into Switzerland and â€œschmuggleâ€ several wheels back with him, quite probably to enjoy alongside his bier. Even though our pilsner was hoppier than many German styles of beers, the pairing made me happier. It is a pretty good rule of thumb: cheeses with the b. linens surface bacteria work well with beers.
Then we come to the magnificent Beeler GruyÃ¨re (that also has some if those b. linens on the surface). The crystalline texture, the depth of flavor; this is a rather profound cheese. One might think that it would overwhelm a pilsner. This bold cheese can turn meek wines into water, so to speak. Yet when you think about the smorgasbord of flavors this cheese offers: nutty, meaty, chocolate, fruity, with a dash of salt; it sounds like a good partner for a pilsner. And indeed it was.
That was the range of pairing successes I found for this pilsner in this setting. It fell flat with the blue. From a previous tasting, I found this same pilsner to be an excellent match for Robiola Rocchetta.
Except for the blues, you can get a fairly broad range of cheeses to pair with your German style of a pilsner.