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.
I was a guest speaker at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival last weekend; the theme was “Italian Cheeses and Wines.” Ever since I made my first presentation there back in 1998 the cheese sessions have been some of the most popular seminars of the festival, always hosted by the inimitable Pam Smith.
It is no surprise these cheese seminars are so popular; it follows the dramatic trajectory of cheese appreciation in the US. We may not eat quite as much cheese as the Italians but we are catching up rapidly. Speaking of formaggi, we have some drop-dead gorgeous cheeses from Italy at this time, each of them screamin’ to be eaten. Along with the cheeses we presented last weekend at Epcot we have some that we see less frequently, such as a wash-rind Quadro di Bufala – a variation on the infamous Taleggio (which is also looking great now) made with cow milk. It turns out that making the cheese with Buffalo milk works especially well; the high butterfat content makes this version especially scrumptious.
Another cheese that we see rarely that is in peak form now is the Robiola Pura Capra. The Robiola family of northern Italian cheeses is vast; there are so many styles of Robioli that it is difficult to describe the group. Safe to say, they are made in northwest Italy, particularly in the Piemonte (foothills of the Italian Alps); they can be made from any combination of cow, goat, sheep or buffalo milk; they come in small formats; and they are usually consumed on the young side. Other than that, there is little else you can say that describes Robiola; different types of rinds make a huge difference in their aromas and flavors, as much as the milk choices themselves.
One of the more popular Robiolas is one made with all three (cow, sheep and goat) milks – the Robiola 3 Latti – the best of all three worlds, all blended together. Blending the milks elevates the overall flavor of the cheese, while moderating some of the qualities in any one of those milks that some people may find less pleasing. By the way, these mixed milk cheeses exhibit tremendous pairing potential with many wine types.
Last weekend at Epcot we had a Robiola 2 Latti (cow and sheep blend) that paired magnificently with a white wine of the region – Arneis. This was a bit of a surprise for me, even considering that they are made in the same region. That same cheese paired well with an Amarone from the northeast of Italy. Then, Amarone is a cheese-friendly wine most of the time.
This coming weekend we will be presenting cheeses and wines from France. A tasting of French cheeses would not be complete without Comté, another cheese looking great in our caves now. Comté is one of those more assertive cheeses that generally pairs better with white wines, the best one being an unusual varietal of the region – Savagnin. No two Comtés are the same; this is one of the great things about this magnificent cheese: each wheel is distinctive. The regulations for its production are strict, and strictly enforced. This is what differentiates them: plenty of land for the animals to graze upon, milk collected within a short distance from where the cheeses are produced and ripened, and no pasteurization equipment is permitted in the cheese-making plant – the fruitière – by law.
In case I don’t see you at Epcot this weekend maybe you can enjoy some Comté and several other lovely French cheeses here at the Center. My colleague Erin Hedley has just a few seats available in her class Saturday afternoon.
Sangiovese is a varietal we often overlook; it could be partly because there were many inferior wines produced from this grape in the past, or because it is often blended with other high-pedigree varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, diluting its own characteristics. It has been blended with other varietals to yield some delicious wines. However part of the appeal of Sangiovese is its easy-drinking character, its graceful acceptance of other varietals in the mix, and its harmony with many foods, cheeses included.
Some Sangiovese successes have been noted recently in Napa yet the grape does not seem to grow quite as successfully much of anywhere else outside Tuscany, so it may also suffer from a lack of recognition on the worldwide stage. We are offering Sangiovese wines in more classes here at the Artisanal Cheese Center, not only the classes focused on Italian cheeses and wines, but in other classes too. This will allow us to pair our cheeses produced outside Italy with several Sangiovese wines. As the weather warms up, Sangiovese is sounding rather appealing, like a nice bottle for a picnic, accompanied by a little cheese and a crusty baguette.
Fortunately, some of the many cheeses that happen to pair well with Sangiovese make good picnic cheeses: goat, sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses; from the lighter styles all the way up to and including some blues. These are some cheeses we have enjoyed with this varietal recently:
I recall enjoying a Valpolicella at a northern Italian style restaurant several years ago. What is northern Italian style food, you may ask? Whether you are speaking of the cuisine of the Veneto where Valpolicella is produced, or you are speaking of the cuisine of the Piemonte, or the Val d’Aosta; whichever region: you will find a broad mix of locally produced agricultural products, cheeses and wines included.
The “king” of Italian wine varietals is Nebbiolo, the noble grape whose juice goes into the production of Barolos and Barbarescos. This “king” status for Nebbiolo (Barolo in particular) makes these wines a little pricey. For a more “every-day red,” the more affordable Chianti Classico (made from Sangiovese) makes for a familiar style of red wine – nice, though technically not “northern” Italian. Somehow I knew that the Valpolicella would make a more suitable wine for the delicious food we selected; or was that the waiter’s suggestion?
The first sip of Valpolicella may catch you off guard, especially if it is a little aged. The more aged ones such as Ripasso della Valpolicella offer more depth than the “nouveau” styles, though they are not nearly as massive as the Amarones. The lighter Valpolicelli are easy-drinking and are relatively low in alcohol. In the production of Ripasso the wine maker adds the leftover grape skins and seeds for extra maceration. This makes for a “bigger” wine, a type that can hold up to many of the more assertive cheeses.
A large part of the success of Valpolicella must be credited to the winemakers, whose blends of the grapes (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara) shape the flavors of their wines. The blended wines often succeed as partners for cheeses, more often than the 100% varietal wines. Kind of like the “best-of-both-worlds” in cheese making: cheeses crafted from mixed milks are usually successful with a broader variety of wine types.
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.
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.”