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.”
I use to say that I thought that I was weaned on Chardonnay. For a go-to white wine, no other grape has come close. When people simply ask for a white wine, if any other varietal is included in the glass, I will bet that there may be a moment of hesitation, almost as though something might be a little “off.” Even for the A.B.C. (anything besides Chardonnay) crowd, the attractiveness of wines produced solely from this grape makes them hard to dismiss. By “attractiveness” I am referring to the grape’s many flavors and aromas, its supple mouth-feel, and its versatility with many foods. The Chardonnay wines can be so delicious that they can be enjoyed on their own. This is a quality that other varietals may also claim – that they can be enjoyed on their own – yet you can lose that appreciation for them more quickly than you can for the Chardonnays. Their wines seem to offer the complete “meal,” not just the beverage accompaniment quality. Some of those aromas and flavors can be found in other varietals, certainly, yet Chardonnay seems to have more of them.
You could say “No two Chardonnays are the same.” This would suggest a level of connoisseurship beyond the grasp of most individuals, even a bit of snobbery. Yes, they are different, yet they are unmistakably Chardonnay.
The appreciation for Chardonnay extends beyond the ease of its pronunciation. How many ways can you say “Chardonnay?” The name rolls of the tongue and the opportunities for rhyming with it are myriad. The relative ease of pronunciation reminds me of the name “Stilton.” This was the cheese guests requested most frequently during my Fromager tenure at Picholine restaurant. Far easier to pronounce than the French equivalent – Fourme d’Ambert – it may have given some diners a sense of connoisseurship, the recognition of a great cheese name. Interestingly, an old article in the Wine Spectator mentioned the success of pairing Stilton with Chardonnay. This sounded preposterous when I first read it, yet I admit that when I tried the two together, it turned out to be a good match. The success of this pairing was confirmed by participants in a Matchmaking Cheese & Wine class recently; the recognition of the successful pairing was virtually unanimous.
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.
A question comes up frequently: how can a cheese smell so strong yet taste so mild? And conversely, some cheeses that have little aroma have a very strong taste. The short answer is that the tongue picks up five flavors only: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami; whereas the nose can detect hundreds of distinct smells. Our nose picks up aromas arising from volatile compounds in the cheese while the actual flavors in the mouth are caused by other chemical attributes. The combination of the aroma and flavor provides the signature “flavor” of the cheese.
One interesting comment I hear refers to the stinky blue cheeses. Many blue cheeses are aromatic but none of them qualify as “stinky.” The “stinky” descriptor applies best to the wash-rind cheeses – those that have the beneficial b. linens bacteria on their rinds. Some of the younger wetter cheeses that have that surface bacteria can be highly aromatic, or “stinky.” A little ammonia can be one of their aromas.
Some people avoid tasting some cheeses because they assume that an intensely aromatic cheese will make for an intensely flavored cheese, one that is over-the-top. For those that risk a nibble of a “stinky” cheese, they are often surprised at how mild-flavored the cheese actually is. The imprints on our cognitive receptors (our noses and tongues) can fool us. They pick up different aspects.
It is interesting to see how cheeses and wines complement each other so well most of the time. The flavors usually balance each other out nicely: the savory note in the cheese balances the fruit in the wine; the more sour cheese harmonizes with the more acid wine; the overall size of the wine matches the overall size of the cheese; etc. At least this is how they usually start off. Everything seems to be working well, then in the finish there is a huge clash.
This happens from time to time. Fortunately the clashes do not occur that often, but when they do the cheese and wine may both suffer because of the bad marriage. Sometimes the cheese simply flattens the wine. When these mismatches occur it is largely due to the confluence of the aromas in the cheese and the wine. They simply do not meld so well. The combination of the aromas can elicit some blends that may remind you of something you would rather forget, or just as often, the conjoined aromas may remind you of a lovely romantic interlude.
Whatever happens, it is usually left up to the nose, or at least to the retro-nasal profiles of the cheese and wine. All the opening acts: appearance, flavor, texture, etc. all these may be in sync, yet the finish is what seals the deal between a cheese and wine. When all these elements are aligned, you experience the “marriages-made-in-heaven” and the matchmaking is a success.
One of our customers is the award-winning luxury cruise line Radisson/Seven Seas. Among their more popular cruises are the “Spotlight on Food and Wine” packages. With superior quality food and beverage on their ships, the company has been rated at the top in the industry. So, of course, to find the best cheese they come to Artisanal.
The passengers on these cruises are drawn to them in large part because they are truly interested in fine food and wine and want to learn more about the wonderful world of gastronomy. The acclaimed cooking school Cordon Bleu has a big presence on this line in the Signatures restaurants and in classes for the passengers. Guest chefs, wine makers, and other experts present lectures, tastings, and cooking demos during the cruises.
Again this year, I had the recent pleasure of presenting a couple of seminars on the Mariner. For the first session, a Cheese and Wine 101 class, we prepared plates of six cheeses to be paired with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir from Hawley wines in Sonoma. Expecting a good turnout for the class of around 80 passengers the service crew set out 100 plates of cheeses just to make sure. Many of the passengers arrived early for the seminar but at the appointed hour the guests just kept on coming! Orders went back to the galley requesting more cheese! Orders went also to the desktop publisher on board to quickly print more tasting sheets. The sommeliers uncorked more bottles of wine. I began the discussion of the basic principles of pairing cheeses with wines and gave short descriptions of each of the cheeses we would be sampling. John Hawley, the proprietor and wine maker of Hawley wines introduced his wines and we then began the actual tasting.
Nearly 150 people, almost one fourth of the passengers on board, sat down to the Cheese and Wine seminar in the main dining room — The Compass Rose! Other programs competing for guests attention at the same time included a lecture on gemstones and one on bridge, a fitness class on tightening and toning the lower body, shuffleboard or golf chipping on deck 12, checkers on the garden promenade on deck 6, the Carita Spa on 7, and the swimming pool on deck 11!
The cheeses we tasted, chosen to illustrate the synergies between cheeses and two different wine types, were: Garrotxa: goat’s milk from Spain, Amarelo da Beira Baixa — sheep and goat’s milk from Portugal, Mahón — cow’s milk from Menorca, Vacherin Fribourgeois — cow’s milk from Switzerland, Gouda (4 y.o.) — cow’s milk from Holland, and Crater Lake Blue — cow’s milk from Rogue River Creamery in Oregon. Each participant was given a score sheet to assess the relationship each cheese had with each wine.
Afterwards, with other programs starting around the ship and the dining room crew anxious to reset the room for lunch service, several of the guests came up with more specific questions about cheese and about cheese and wine pairing. From that point on the remainder of my time on board the Mariner seemed to be an endless flow of cheese talk. We had hoped to have a little extra cheese for the cheese boards in the dining rooms that evening, but it was pretty much all gone.
Two days later, the second seminar on cheese focused on cheese making methods, the history of cheese, and the nutritional values of cheese, and coincidentally, on the relationship of 6 different cheeses to 2 different wines — a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, California. The cheeses were: Majorero — goat’s milk from the Canaries (I thought a maritime cheese would work well on board the Mariner sailing in the Pacific), Beyos — cow’s milk from Spain, Cheshire — cow’s milk from England (with a marine tang), Serena — sheep milk from western Spain, Appenzeller — cow’s milk from eastern Switzerland, and Harbourne Blue — goat’s milk from England.
This seminar was scheduled for later in the day when the weather was more likely to draw passengers to the pool. And coinciding with cheese time we had a Blackjack tournament in the casino, the Incredibles on the big screen, bridge, shuffleboard, crafts, needlepoint, a harp seminar, tea time with a view, and Pilates. So naturally, a thinner attendance was predicted, but again, to our surprise, we had nearly 140 people!
The Executive Chef, Quinn McMahon, asked if I would do a little Cheese 101 seminar for the Food and Beverage crew late that night after most of the passengers had retired. Tired as they had to have been, we again enjoyed a huge turnout of some particularly curious Chefs, Sommeliers, and other dining room staff!
It was amazing to see the response that the cheese seminars had. I thought to myself upon debarkation “next time we’ll need more cheese!”
Food and Wine Magazine ran an article on one of those Spotlight cruises on the same Mariner ship in the July issue last year entitled “Boat Camp”. Written by Abe Opincar and enhanced by the photography of Lucy Schaeffer, “Boat Camp” is available in our site’s In the News section.