“Pleasure” is one of the first words that come to mind when we think of these two: cheese and wine, or “enjoyment.” The partnerships of cheese and wine have been around for centuries, most of them pleasurable relationships. So when we have cheese and wine (or cheese with any beverage) we are usually not thinking about how or why they mate. We are simply enjoying the wine and cheese: we have a sip of wine then we have a nibble of cheese, then wine, then cheese, etc., without fully contemplating the matching: the balancing and complementary relationships between the cheese and wine. Not to overanalyze it, but sometimes the residue leaves an “off” impression – it seems that some sort of conflict may have occurred. We enjoy a wine type and we enjoy a style of cheese, they may even be produced in the same region, yet they are not getting along, so to speak. I am afraid that most people blame the cheese when those mismatches occur.
Cheese has been so badly maligned for so long; cheese has suffered enough!
It is like a great guy and a great gal; the two may not be meant for each other.
“Pairing” seems to be all the rage these days. More and more restaurants have flights of cheese and wine (or craft beer, or Scotch, etc.) and when people are entertaining guests they often obsess about finding the ideal matches. This is probably one reason why my second book – Cheese, a Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best – won a James Beard award, its wine pairings included with each cheese.
There are fundamental principles of pairing foods and beverages that can be applied to pairing cheese and wine. When those principles are considered to their fullest, those pairings often yield some “marriages-made-in-heaven,” or perfect pairings. There is a little science to it. One bit of science may be that when the cheese and wine (or other beverage) pair well aesthetically there may be other neurological benefits derived from careful matchmaking, so there may be some nutritional benefits too.
These pairing principles are applied when we taste cheeses and wines in our Matchmaking class. The class is a little academic but it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience; call it “infotainment.”
Our recent Master Series brought together the talents of several members of the Artisanal team, each member offering their expertise on different topics. We used to offer the series over the course of six weeks, one long weeknight per week. This format did not work well for out-of-towners so we consolidated the series into three days. Even that was problematic for some people: getting away from work for three days and paying for an extra hotel night in the city. So we consolidated the series into two longer days: Sunday and Monday. This has worked well for most people, although many students have said they would have enjoyed studying cheese several more days with us.
Actual cheese mastery certainly requires more than twenty hours, but with a little background coming in to our series, one can expect to become more masterful. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my editor: she asked me if I would like to write a book entitled Mastering Cheese. I asked her how long I could take to write the book, and how many words could I have. Neither the 15 months nor the 300,00 words were sufficient. Her patience allowed me an extra 3 months to write 450,000 words, 64,000 of which she let me leave in the final manuscript.
I have always maintained that the best way to learn about cheese is to put it in your mouth. Kind of like a picture says a thousand words. Alas, there is only so much you can learn about cheese reading a book about it. Hands-on experience is invaluable. This is one reason that the Cheese Professionals certification effort endorsed by the American Cheese Society has an eligibility requirement. Work experience and academic training can be combined to meet the requirement to sit for the exam.
The twenty hours that a student spends with us in our Master Series can go a long way to help meet the eligibility requirements, more than the twenty hours alone. The series’ syllabus covers many areas, from the history of cheese, to basic cheese making, to pairing cheese with wine, storage and presentation, the nutritional values and safety concerns, all the way to cheese “business.” The series is geared to the professional, either in the retail or restaurant setting. Some people have a keen interest in cheese; call them cheese “enthusiasts” considering a change in careers. No other professional cohort has followed the cheese trail more than attorneys.
As people are preparing to take the first exam this August, several people have come in for our Master Series. Some people are already in the cheese business in one way or another. They take our Master Series to gain knowledge they can apply in their jobs. The networking opportunities usually lead to long-standing professional relationships.
One of the students in our last series was an established cheese educator and author, Ms. Jody Farnham. We also had Ms. Jane Bauer, the American Cheese Society’s Education and Outreach Manager; and Ms. Nora Weiser, the Society’s Executive Director. Needless to say, these students, combined with all the others from across North America made for a great group. This may sound like we had a large class. Actually, we have always kept the enrollments low, to give greater individual focus and interaction. As always, we also learned more teaching the series.
By the way, as of last year, the American Cheese Society includes the profession of Cheese Educator in the members’ jobs categories.
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.
It is a pity that cheese is not a subject taught in medical school. Several physician friends tell me that nutrition itself receives little attention. We would like to hear our medical professionals expound the advice of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, who said “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
Most cheese we know today is so far removed from that primordial life-sustaining mammalian milk that it should be no surprise that a group of physicians in upstate New York is targeting dairy as a cause for America’s burgeoning obesity problems. They have correctly noted that the per capita cheese consumption has tripled since the 1970’s. Concomitantly a growing rise in obesity has occurred, yet these two trends are not directly related. The causes of obesity are not linked to the effects of consumption of dairy products. Some of the larger culprits in this weight gain are not the types that most people suspect: whole milk and full-fat cheeses. Instead, a significant part of the blame rests with the low-fat and skim-milk dairy products, and their depleted weight-reducing qualities.
The Albany area Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has launched a graphic billboard campaign depicting grossly oversized abdomens and thighs, warning that cheese contributes to high obesity rates and poses health risks. The group has gone so far as to write the Albany school board asking the city to cut down on dairy products served in schools to help students reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
PCRM President, Dr. Neal Barnard, said in a news release “Typical cheeses are 70% fat,” which is blatantly untrue. The only cheeses that reach that level are the triple crèmes, which happen to have their own excellent weight-reducing qualities. Further he claims “…the type of fat they hold is mainly saturated fat — the kind that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.” It is embarrassing that our physicians are so terribly misinformed. Suffice it to say, many of today’s western medicine practices are treating symptoms instead of recommending effective dietary prevention methods.
The president of The New York Farm Bureau quickly pointed out that Dr. Neal Barnard who heads up this group is in fact a psychiatrist, and not a dietitian.
Regardless, even among dieticians there appears to be more cheese phobia than cheese appreciation. For the many that do accept dairy, the low-fat varieties are the ones that are usually recommended. These low-fat products may be some of the biggest shams the food industry has ever thrust on mankind. It is increasingly being recognized that it is not the fat itself that puts the pounds on, it is the consumption of excess calories that go unexpended. Calories can be derived from protein (which cheese contains) carbohydrates, as well as fat. It is too simplistic, as well as inaccurate, to say that fat that is consumed will automatically go to your abdomen or thighs. In otherwise healthy people our digestive systems have grand plans for the utilization of fats; the systems are not straight-shot conveyor belts to our waist lines.
Fat actually curbs our appetites by triggering the release of cholecystokinin, a hormone that yields a feeling of satiety, and one that is directly involved in the metabolysis of proteins and fats. Other hunger suppressors found in cheese include certain peptides and their amino acids. Many of the proteins (including their building-block peptides and amino acids), as well as many of the vitamins and minerals that cheese contain, all help to metabolize the foods we consume. After all, cheese is preserved milk – our first and only food for the first several weeks or months of our lives. This is one of the fundamental reasons why cheese can help us reduce weight if we choose to; it is a near-complete food which (except for vitamin C and fiber) provides all the nutrients we require.
Speaking of fat, the higher fat cheeses provide more conjugated linoleic acid, the valuable fatty acid. CLA has been shown to be an effective weight reducer in multiple studies. This fatty acid (which happens to be a beneficial trans-fat) is a by-product of lypolysis – the breakdown of the fats. Fat slows the release of sugar into our bloodstream, reducing the amount that can be stored as fat. Our LDL cholesterol levels can be raised by dairy consumption, however there is more than one kind of LDL and dairy fat affects only the benign kind.
Cheese is such a near-complete food (especially the high-fat cheeses) that we can reach satiety long before we have consumed excess calories, calories which in turn lead to weight gain if not expended.
The low-fat dairy products contain additives which are high in dangerous oxidized cholesterol which can form arterial plaque. The pasteurized low-fat dairy products are nutritionally depleted through protein denaturing and the elimination of significant levels of fat-soluble vitamins; just to list a couple of the losses.
In 2005, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health studied the weight and milk comsumption of children. Contrary to their hypothesis, skim and 1% milks were associated with weight gain, but dairy fat was not.
Cheese does not claim to be a “perfect” food but there is no more complete food available to us. Cheese also continues to enjoy an excellent track record for food safety, safer than fruits and vegetables.
To the PCRM group I say: “Find some other food to pick on. Cheese production offers the only viable enterprise remaining for the family farm. Cheese has suffered enough.”
“So, how are your cholesterol levels”? This is the second most FAQ I am asked, right after “If you eat so much cheese why aren’t you fat”?
I have my cholesterol levels checked periodically, just to make sure they are fine. In the meantime I eat a lot of cheese. I estimate that I consume more than twice the national average – more than one pound per week. A recent check of my cholesterol levels came in great: 91 HDL and 61 LDL. Those enviable levels are partly attributable to good genes but the extra cheese does not appear to be hurting.
Cheese Cleared of Cholesterol Charges is an article published recently by Vital Choices Newsletter; it appears to be a well-written and well-researched report. I agree with its premise: cheese should not be blamed for dangerous cholesterol levels. I have seen and heard convincing evidence throughout my cheese career supporting that belief. The assumption that elevated cholesterol levels (of the LDL, “bad” cholesterols especially) leads to cardiovascular disease is not supported by credible research indicating cause and effect, not that cheese has the propensity to raise cholesterol levels, good or bad. As the article points out, there appears to be scant correlation between cholesterol levels and heart disease.
It is interesting that some of the highest per capita cheese consuming countries happen to have some of the lowest incidences of CVD. Of course there are other compounding parameters at play yet it would appear to be simplistic, if not inaccurate, to assume that eating more cheese will cause heart attacks. Instead, more blame for cardiovascular diseases can be attributed to inflammations, many of which are reduced with the fats derived from dairy.
Fine cheese offers several benefits, pleasure among them: curbing the appetite, anti-oxidant properties, metabolism of fats and proteins, a full complement of amino acids for our overall well-being, and many others. It is no wonder cheese is gaining a following among health professionals, and then consequently from insightful media outlets.
Think of cheese as tasty medicine and not as a guilty pleasure. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, stated it clearly over twenty four centuries ago “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
An article written by a cheese guy would uncover more facets of the mysteries of affinage than one written by someone outside the industry. The recent article in the NY Times made for interesting reading: the pitting of the affinage naysayers and those who are strong proponents of the practice(s). The article concluded with evidence the cheeses that were given extra care were superior to those that had not; one of the cheeses in the latter group was inedible. Whether it was admitted or not there are plenty of things that happen to cheese once it is formed; some of those things are beneficial while many others can be seriously detrimental. Simple aging involves a number of processes that occur on their own, yet careful monitoring of these processes is critical.
An immature cheese has less character than a mature cheese. To bring that young cheese to where it reaches its optimal level of ripeness includes several skill sets, several beyond what the cheese maker generally provides.
While some established cheese mongers claim their cheese-handling task is simple: to avoid screwing up a good cheese, this alone involves far more than temperature and humidity-controlled storage. It is no wonder that many people don’t like cheese. Lazy and imprecise cheese handling (or simple neglect) can yield a lame gustatory experience.
When I call the Artisanal Cheese Center a “day school” for cheese it barely scratches the surface of what we aim to accomplish in nurturing our cheeses. The critical first few hours and days of a cheese are almost always left to the cheese maker. After that the “finishing” is left up to the retailer who then sells it to the end-consumer. Perhaps a better analogy is to call our enterprise a “finishing school.”
To “elevate” a cheese is not rocket science. Some people who handle cheeses seem to have the knack. Under the tutelage of one of those experts a cheese can reach its optimal peak. Without those skills and talent a cheese can easily succumb to the catacombs.
Whether we care to admit it or not, affinage is practiced by a growing number of Americans. Along with the growing appreciation for cheese here, there is a greater need for this expertise. This is one reason the American Cheese Society has endorsed a certification effort for cheese handlers. By this time next year we expect there will be several individuals who have attained this certification. A big part of this will include knowledge of good cheese-handling practices.
Cheese is a living food, a near-perfect food, but it is also a perishable food. The affineur must include safe handling in their cheese studies. Fortunately cheese has some built-in qualities which make it a safe food, safer than most other foods.
For the person who said Portugal and Ireland were newcomers in the cheese world, they should be advised that cheese has been a food staple in both those regions for almost as long as it has been in Italy and Spain, since well before any of those countries were known by those names. What is now called France is as much a newcomer as is Portugal.
What is happening with affinage here in the US is encouraging. With these developments I expect artisan cheeses to taste better and better. Good affinage speaks for itself.
When planning a party that includes cheese the host must ask these questions: How many ounces per person? How many different cheeses? How much cheese to buy?
If other food is served three ounces of cheese per person should be sufficient. I recommend serving no fewer than three cheeses. If cheese is the main food you might increase that to 6 ounces total, and a minimum of 5 cheeses. I admit that I believe more is better yet a pretty good rule of thumb is to allow one pound each of the cheeses for every sixteen persons, about one ounce each. For the harder cheeses this is more than enough, for the softer cheeses or for the cheeses with thicker rinds that is about perfect.
Why the difference?
The softer cheeses have higher water content so people tend to eat bigger portions of those than they do of the firmer varieties. If the cheese has a thick rind that is not itself tasty you should factor that in. This applies to many aged and blue cheeses. Cheeses with rinds, wax coatings, leaf-wraps, and/or higher water contents should be scaled up a bit.
If you want to be a little more precise you might cut back a little on the harder cheeses, perhaps one pound for every twenty persons, and keep the others at about one pound for every sixteen. I have heard many people say “I can eat a ton of cheese.” I doubt that. Maybe a couple of tons in one’s lifetime is more realistic. If you consider that our per capita consumption in the U.S. is steadily rising to around 35 pounds each year, a ton of cheese should be easy enough. I sense that New Yorkers are doing their part to help raise that consumption.
Not to be gluttonous but to recognize cheese as a near-perfect food that enjoys a stellar track record for food safety, I believe we should all eat a little more of it, but only what I will call “real” cheese. On the other hand it is good to know that a little bit of cheese goes a long way, especially the harder cheeses. A cheese that costs over $30.00 per pound may seem high but one pound of a firm cheese can last for several days. I recently purchased a half pound of one of our new cheeses – the Stella Royale – and I expect that I will continue to nibble on it for several more days. A pound of this cheese is only $15.00!
We have some very soft and luxurious Quesos de la Serena in our caves now. I purchased an entire wheel of one yesterday. This one costs $21.50 per pound but it is worth every little dollop. I could not resist it; believe I ate nearly a pound of it last night! This cheese might be more appropriate for a special occasion with at least six people attending but when you see one this nice it should not be missed. The special occasion was having one in such marvelous form (as they usually are this time of year).
We usually serve the equivalent of about 6 ounces cheeses total in our classes here, which may not sound like much. Many people finish their entire selection but others opt to take a little home with them. This is after the opening receptions where several other cheeses and delicious fondue is served. Between the reception cheeses and those that are on the class plates, one could easily eat nearly a pound of find “real” cheeses in two hours. It can be done! Having all these outstanding cheeses within easy reach is one reason the New York per capita consumption is so high. Imagine a per capita consumption of 365 pounds each year! I am doing my part.
Everywhere you turn now people seem to be talking about pairing foods and beverages, especially the cheese and beverage pairings. This could be partly because we started digging into this study almost twenty years ago and now it seems like everyone’s doing it. Our pairings began with the focus on cheese and wine. The beer lovers hopped on the pairing bandwagon, then spirits aficionados, sakes cognoscenti, tea drinkers, coffee lovers, etc.
Cheese has been enjoyed with beers and wines for many centuries, the other ones are more recent studies. Yet Americans seem to have a near-obsession with the pairings, whatever the food and beverage, as though if we get it wrong we have made an egregious error. The pairing principles are good tools to use to master pairings but the variables are limitless, and we have to admit that it is a little subjective.
Our preferences for certain cheeses or wines (or other beverages) likely has a big say in our pairing assessments. For example, if we are particularly fond of Pinot Noir we might find more successful pairings with that grape than with a wine we avoid. The same goes for the cheeses. In our Cheese & Wine 101 class we dissect the pairings of several cheese types with a range of wines.
This “laboratory” is probably not the way most people experience cheeses and wines–by mixing them in the mouth and noting what happens as the mixture crosses the palate. It is normally a less formal or academic exercise, one that is more leisurely. We have a sip of wine then we have a nibble of cheese a little later. Most people do not consciously force the two together simultaneously. Even though the “forced” pairing is not taking place in these casual situations the results can be very much the same. If the cheese and wine were not good mates to begin with, they probably eventually leave a disappointing finish.
More often than not, cheeses and wines (or beers) do work well together. Again, we all have our personal preferences and sometimes the confluence of flavors and aromas between the cheeses and beverages can bring out new flavors and aromas which some of us may enjoy while others do not. Those aromatics are what “seals-the-deal” in pairings not just with cheese but with all foods.
The balancing relationships between cheeses and wines have several parallels: the “fruit” in the wine (or beer or other beverage) balances the salty or savory characteristics in the cheese. The saltier cheeses pair better with the fruitier wines, generally even better with the so-called “dessert” wines. Those wines with higher levels of residual sugar should be called “cheese” wines. When you already have sweet in your dessert why would you want to top it off with a little more sugar in the wine? One of the classic matches between a cheese and wine is the one between a salty Roquefort and a sweet Sauternes.
Another balancing act between cheeses and beverages is how they relate to overall “size” of flavor. The bigger flavored cheeses can annihilate a milder wine. It is usually better to have the cheese and wine find a matching fullness of flavor otherwise the cheese can change the wine into water, so to speak. The gentle wine may wash the big cheese down nicely but the subtleties in the wine may be lost.
We have found that the more acid cheeses generally work better with the more acid wines. All wines are more acid than all cheeses. If the cheeses had those low pH levels they would be intolerable. This is more a relationship of harmony than an actual see-saw balance. This is perhaps one reason why beers and cheeses can mate so well, the pH levels in beers are rarely as acid as those in wines.
Speaking of beers, the texture of each partner plays a not insignificant role. The effervescence in beers helps to lift up the butter fats and acids in cheeses so that they swirl around in the mouth like Balanchine. Wines have their textures too; it is not just “advantageous” sparkling wines and still wines. The mouth feel of still wines can be notably different. One varietal such as a Chardonnay has a round texture compared to a Sauvignon Blanc. This overall mouth feel is drawn from a number of qualities: acid, astringent (as those presented in tannic wines), trace minerals, barrel influence, and any effervescence.
Cheeses obviously have their own textures. Some are liquid like water while others are nearly as hard as granite. This is a relationship between cheeses and beverages that may be a little less important than others yet we have found that the firmer the cheese the better the mating with the beverage. This could be partly because the flavors in the cheese become more focused as they harden and age; the salts become more pronounced – those salts which play off the liquid partner so well, especially a liquid partner on the sweeter side. The softer cheeses often work best with the more effervescent beverages. The flavors in a younger softer cheese can be a bit scattered and unfocused compared to the harder cheeses. The bubbles provide a little texture to the duet.
Again, in more cases than not, cheeses and wines or other beverages do work well together. There are the occasional bad marriages but they are much less frequent than the successes. It should be noted that the hungrier and thirstier you are the more likely they pairings will be pleasing.
August is goat cheese month for a couple of reasons. Most goat cheeses are at their peaks when they are on the young side. If it is a relatively aged goat cheese (say around four months of age) the milk would have been drawn when the animals had some of the fresh vegetation that April brings, or if it is a younger cheese there should be a good diversity of plants available in July or August. Many dairy goats have wild berries and fresh herbs in their summer diets. The more food choices the animals have, the more flavorful the milk will be, which translates to a better cheese.
August, being one of the hottest months of the year, is a time when our cheese choices are for the lighter varieties, such as those younger goat cheeses. When the temperature creeps up into the nineties or higher we might skip the blues, the big-flavored or the stinky cheeses and choose those lighter creamier goat cheeses such as the Laurier instead. Even though most goat cheeses are still available in fine form later in the year, they are especially favored in August.
Our choices of wines or beers veer toward the lighter styles in August too. The Sauvignon Blancs (a varietal whose favorite cheeses are produced with goat milk) or the young Chardonnays that are fermented in stainless steel instead of oak, the floral Viogners and dry AlbariÃ±os or Chenin Blancs; all these white wines and many others pair exceptionally well with the goat milk cheeses. These cheeses also blend in beautifully with our cool pilsners, wheat beers, and our summer ales.
When you follow the logic of the CheeseClockâ„¢ pairing tool this is precisely what is indicated, the lighter cheeses such as the younger milder goat cheeses pair best with the lighter wines and beers.