Syrah, the Sheep Cheese-Friendly Varietal

Syrah wines have seen gains in popularity over the past several years, partly because they exhibit pairing potential with many food types. And so it is with cheeses too, but only up to a point. They have all the aromas and flavors which makes them a delicious alternative to the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignons; they’re a little easier on the palate, and easier on the pocket book compared to the Pinot Noirs. (We can thank Sideways for those pricey Pinots.)

The Syrahs may not have the structure of a well-made Cabernet Sauvignon, yet they can be “big” nonetheless. They typically have deep flavors and often the elevated alcohol levels to match. With all that “size” you may ask how they can blend so well with other varietals. The lower tannin levels help with this yet some other grapes that do have the extra tannins can make for challenging blending partners. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of those varietals often blended with Syrah. Personally, I lose some of the gracefulness of Syrah in that match-up, as though the Cabernet muzzles the Syrah. The idea of blending Syrah with Pinot Noir seems to be a big no-no. Fortunately this rarely happens.

For the wines that are either 100% Syrah or are dominated by that grape, there are some excellent matches with cheeses – the default species being sheep. I am reminded of peanut butter and jelly. For most styles of sheep milk cheeses: fresh, bloomy rind, pressed, wash-rind; the Syrah wines fit perfectly. Few red wines meld into cheeses as gracefully as Syrah. The mixed milk cheeses can pair well (as they usually do), the cheddar styles of cow cheeses marry well, cow milk blue cheeses make good mates, even the Alpine cooked pressed cow milk cheeses are compatible with Syrah wines. The sheep milk cheeses are the stars however – the ones that remind me of that classic food match, peanut butter and jelly.

The Syrah wines are lovely any time of the year, especially when they are brought down to cellar temperature. As they warm up to room temperature they retain their charm; the aromas of violets are more recognizable. As always, make sure that your cheeses are no cooler. Some of the best cheese partners for these wines right now include: Lillé, Pecorino Sardo DOP, Windsordale Truckle, Stilton, Nettle Meadow Kunik, Royale, Helen, Mousseron Jurassienn, Berkshire Blue, Idiazábal, Seven Sisters, Ossau Iraty, Le Moulis, Bleu d’Auvergne, Beaufort, Brazos Cheddar, Comté, Dorset, Fontina Val d’Aosta, 4 yr. old Gouda, Gruyère, Hoch Ybrig, Uplands Pleasant Ridge, Sbrinz, and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

All these cheeses marry well with Syrah (or Shiraz) but look to the sheep milk cheeses among them for the stellar “marriages-made-in-heaven.” There will be many more Syrah-friendly cheeses coming into good form soon!

Max McCalman

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