The weather we’re experiencing around here these days suggests fondue. For other parts of the country even more so! Nothing warms you better than melted cheese and currently there are several specimens here that dissolve beautifully into simmering white wines. One of the original fondue cheeses is Fontina d’Aosta, always crafted from raw cow milk, as they have been for over a thousand years. The so-called “mountain” cheeses are the ones to seek out, especially the cow milk varieties.
It seems that cow milk cheeses are better at melting into a fondue than sheep, and certainly better than goat cheeses. Many of these mountain cheeses are delicious on their own at room temperatures, yet Fontina (though delicious at room temperature) simply does not hold up so well when left out. A wedge of Fontina will start to slump, the butter fats will leach out, and the wedge will dry out quickly. The cheese seems to demand that it be melted down, which is one reason why it makes an excellent cooking cheese.
A similar cheese from across the border in eastern France is Morbier, more of a smear-ripened cheese than Fontina but equally nice at melting. The Morbier has the same disposition when set out at room temperature as the Fontina d’Aosta. The harder cheeses that are closely related to these stand up better when left out, such as Comté, Gruyère, Uplands Pleasant Ridge and Tarentaise. When I first started snacking on these types at room temperature I was admonished, as though that was the only way to fully enjoy them, melted.
Maybe that is true for today’s weather but when it warms up in a few months, I would prefer to leave the fondue pot in storage and instead shave off several thin slices of these marvelous cheeses, invariably some of the most popular in cheese competitions.
An old colleague called it “cheddar weather.” Today’s weather is close to ideal for maintaining cheddar: cool, moist, overcast, with gentle breezes. These are the kinds of conditions that work best for curing most any cheese, cheddar included. They approximate the conditions in a natural cave, which is the reason they call cheese ripening rooms “caves.”
Another reason we might call it “cheddar weather” is because this kind of weather can stimulate our appetites for cheese. For some of us any kind of weather is good for the cheese appetite. We may prefer some cheese styles more than others depending on the atmospheric conditions, the same way that weather can shape our wine choices. Our taste for cheese may veer toward the lighter cheeses when it is hot outside, while the colder days suggest a heavier mountain style of cheese – the types that make their way into fondue.
It may be mid-summer but fondue sounds good, the primordial food that it is. Cheddar, by the way, is not the ideal cheese for fondue. Cheddar works well for melting over apple pie but the Gruyère family of cheeses is better for making fondue. Call it “Gruyère weather?”
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.
Champagnes and sparkling wines have advantages over still wines in pairing with cheeses – their effervescence. The juice of hundreds of different varietals can go into crafting sparkling wines but true Champagnes are limited to three: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Each of these is planted in roughly the same amounts in the Champagne region. For sparkling wines produced outside that area just about every other grape known to man has had a go at sparkling wine production. I enjoy a good Cava every now and then, a chilled glass of Prosecco can be spectacular, but the sparkling wines that are made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (maybe with a little Pinot Meunier mixed in) are my favorites. There are some spectacular sparkling wines made with these varietals that rival some of the better known Champagnes, and they are usually available at a much lower price.
Champagnes (and their facsimiles) are noted by their acidity, which helps carry the sweetness across the palate. The effervescence, the acidity and the fruity qualities of these wines makes them especially refreshing. If it were left up to those qualities alone, the ideal cheese partners would be easier to predict – cheeses that had a balancing level of salt, a harmonious level of acidity, and textures that can meld with these sparklers. As with any wine, the aromatics ultimately come into play. For example, the Chardonnay-dominant Champagnes fare better with cheeses that pair best with still wines made from that varietal. This may sound like a given yet there are some people that will forego a glass of Chardonnay but will gladly accept a Blanc de Blanc made solely from this grape. The other major player in Champagne is Pinot Noir – a varietal everyone seems to enjoy. The Champagnes and sparkling wines made primarily with this varietal will be a little different than those made primarily or solely with Chardonnay. The most recognizable difference is in the aroma.
You might try pouring a little Blanc de Blanc into the crater on top of a Langres and allow the Champagne to seep into the interior of the cheese. This is more than mere theatrics; it softens the texture of the paste making the cheese that much more delectable. Keep in mind that it is the Chardonnay-dominant Champagnes that work best with Langres .
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.
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.