There was a time when most people seemed to insist on red wines with cheeses, or ports. Then there was a flip-flop and many people insisted that white wines were the only ones appropriate for cheeses. I confess that I may have helped contribute to that trend. I have found many more great matches with whites than with reds, yet there are many red wine pairing standouts.
At last week’s Cheese & Wine 101 the reds beat the whites hands down. The Alsatian Riesling scored well (as Rieslings usually do) but the Vacqueyras in which Grenache was the driver succeeded nicely with each of the cheeses: goat, sheep and cow; soft to hard. The Primitivo scored a couple +2’s: with Le Moulis (vache) and with the aged Gouda. This wine was a bit much for the lovely little Rove des Garrigues but everything else paired well, which is no surprise.
I mentioned how well the Riesling paired (except with the Manchego [not bad but not very good either] and with the Echo Mountain [ditto]) yet it scored a couple +2’s as well: with the Roves des Garrigues and with the Taleggio. You can count on Rieslings of any stripe to flatter the wash rind cow cheeses, as well as most of their goat and sheep expressions.
The big disappointment of the evening was the Verdejo—the Rueda. Lovely wine to begin but it faded fast. Excellent on its own and with the Roves des Garrigues, nice with the aged Manchego, then it was headed for the showers.
Overall scores: Reds 16 Whites 10.
Of course this was only seven cheeses and the selections, though diverse, just happened to be selective partners for these four wines, each in their own ways. Interesting to note: none of the matches was bad; which serves as a reminder: in more cases than not, cheeses and wines do pair well with each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.