Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cheese Rules

The first Cheese Boot Camp class the other week went extremely well. Everyone love the cheese and enjoyed the wine pairings immensely. So, I thought I would share some tips on how to match a wine with a particular cheese. In a world where you can choose from thousands of cheese and even more wine, the concept of picking the perfect wine for a cheese can proof daunting. First rule, lighten up and go with the flow. The best is to enjoy overall and accept that no definitive rules exist for such a subjective topic. It's hard to find a wine that doesn't work well with cheese. You might come across some clashing pairs, but follow some easy guidelines listed below and you'll be on your way to cheese and wine bliss.

Consider the cheese selection first and then go for the wine pairing. If you have the option for a cheese plate, make sure your wine bridges the various flavors between the different cheeses, even if you have one or two odd balls the accoutrements might ease the pairing. There are seven styles of cheese and usually each category pairs with particular classes of wine. When considering cheeses from France, Spain or Italy, go for a wine from the same region if you want to keep it simple. Like Crottin de Chavignol and Loire Valley whites or reds (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, or Gamay). Munster with Alsatian or German Rieslings. Manchego with an inexpensive, fruity Spanish Tempranillo or Grenache/Mourvedre blend. Cow's milk semi-firm cheeses from Colorado, Wisconsin, or California with California Chardonnay, California Syrah, or Oregon Pinot Noir.

So how do you determine category or style of cheese by appearance? The rind depicts the style; hence your visual clue.

1. Fresh Cheeses have no rind. Think mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, ricotta (although that's slightly different as it's made from whey and not curd). They also have the most moisture and least complexity. Best to go for light to medium bodied wines or rosés (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, unoaked Chardonnay, Trebbiano, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, rosés from the Loire or Provence).

2. Soft cheeses with fuzzy, white rinds made from Penicillium candidum form your soft-ripened category of cheese . The rind forms because the cheeses are stored in humid, warm facilities attracting the mold that makes the cheeses we know as Brie, Camembert, Explorateur and Pavé d'Affinois. The rind imparts an earthy, mushroom aroma and flavor but the good gooeyness in the middle ranges in flavor from mild, tangy, salty to rich, buttery and more strongly flavored. Best to consider texture of these cheeses and match to a wine. I love Pinot Noir with Bries or Camemberts. Any wine with smooth texture from high glycerol content gives the sensation of silk, satin sheets. A sheer softness can be found in medium-priced Cabernet Sauvignons ($18-$35), Chiantis with volume, rich Bordeaux mostly from the Right Bank. But, there is nothing better than slicing a warm baguette and slathering it with fresh, creamery butter, topped with Fromager d'Affinois (or any triple-cream, soft-ripened cheese) and guzzling a glass of decadent red like Australian Shiraz that's over-the-top with fruit and jam, delivering a velvety mouthfeel. Sparkling wines not heavy on the sur lees aging pair quite well, or even New Zealand Sauv Blancs and French Sancerre.

3. Natural rind cheeses exhibit blue-grey molds with a wrinkly rind. This style encompasses all your small-sized French goat cheeses, and some American styles like the Wabash Canonball, Crocodile Tears, Crottin de Chavignol, for instance. They are harder to source in the states, but they're phenomenal with Loire Valley reds and whites (Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, Touraine, Anjou, Saumur, Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgeuil) Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Quintessential pairings would be your tangy Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre, Quincy, Menetou-Salon, New Zealand or South Africa.

4. Semi-soft/Semi-firm cheeses cover all the cheeses in the middle such as Edam, Sonoma Jack, Fontina, Lambchopper, P'tit Basque, Abbaye de Belloc, Tomme de Savoie. They are not hard and they have pinkish brown to dark grey rinds, some or waxed or covered in herbs & spices. They have a somewhat "elastic" feel. The key is they do not have sticky, stinky orange rinds, or the fuzzy, bloomy white rind. They are more distinctly flavoured and can be made from goats milk, sheep or cow. So, they pair well with wines from around the world. Go for bolder flavors found in Rioja, Priorat, Argentina or Cahors Malbecs, Chiantis/Sangiovese, California Zinfandels, Cabs or Syrahs, Oregon Pinots, Burgundy. Truthfully, they are incredibly versatile with a range of medium to full-bodied reds and whites. This category is more experimental. Best to taste the cheese first and determine how aromatic, mild or robust in flavor it is to match a wine with equal complements.

5. When you're brave you explore the washed-rind cheeses which have an orangey-brown sticky rind. They are pungent in smell and flavor and most always have to be enjoyed with wine (in my opinion). Think Chimay, Munster, Epoisses, Grayson, Taleggio. Difficult cheeses to pair only because so many people will buy wine in the lower price-range, a category that fails to deliver in this case. Washed-rind cheeses are so complex aromatically, and in the organoleptic sense, that you must pair with a complex red or white wine, something that stimulates conversation for hours, a wine to truly ponder due to its layers of flavor and complexity. Aged Bordeaux, northern Italian wines such as Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d'Alba, Super-Tuscans, domestic Meritages, Rhone reds. In the white realm, think aged Chenin Blancs or white Bordeaux, possibly even high-quality Gruner Veltliner from aged vines, or Grand Cru Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer. In other words, the wines can't just be fruity and tangy, they need to be developed with secondary and tertiary aromas coming forth with great viscosity (not in a sweet wine sense but from pysiologically ripe grapes sourced from quality winemaking). Price point does matter in this case I believe.

6. Hard cheeses are fairly simple to identify for obvious reasons, they're hard. Pairing a wine is not so simple though. They range from mild to outrageously tangy or salty, so almost any wine can be a potential match. Rule of thumb is the stronger the cheese the bigger the wine required. Milder flavored cheeses do so well with Chilean reds like Carmenere or American Merlots. Cotes du Rhones, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape taste great next to Mahon, Gruyere, Pecorino, Romano, and Roncal. Big, bold Cabernet Sauvignons do nicely with aged Goudas, aged or cloth-bound Cheddars, Mimolette, Beaufort, and Jack.

7. Blues are simple. They are usually wrapped in aluminum foil because the molds constantly release liquid that collects on the outside, the wrapper prevents a rind from forming. This category is the strongest and also the saltiest. Thus, the world of sweet and fortified wines awaits. Classic pairing would be Sauternes with Roquefort, but you can find sweet wine from anywhere. You typically want to go with white sweets that exhibit tropical fruits versus nuttiness or marzipan found in Sherry (there are exceptions of course). Botrytized wines prove to be a great pair. Red dessert wines pair nicely, including Port with Stilton or Shropshire, late harvest Zinfandels.

Below, I have listed the seven cheeses and pairings that we matched in the shop, all of which were fantastic according to the cheesemongers in attendance.

Fresh Cheese: Cypress Grove Purple Haze Arcata, California
Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc Central Valley, Chile $11.99

Soft-Ripened Fuzzy Rind: Old Chatham Nancy's Camembert Old Chatham, New York
Elizabeth Spencer Chenin Blanc Sonoma, California $22.99

Semi-firm: Istara P'tit Basque Sheep's Milk Pyrenees Mountains, France
Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Taupes Bourgogne Rouge $22.99

Washed-Rind: Chimay Trappiste with beer Mont du Secours, Belgium
La Rivalerie Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, France $24.99

Flavored Cheese (Semi-firm Category): Red Dragon made with Welsh brown ale, mustard seeds, Wales
Lucien Albrect Gewurztraminer Reserve Alsace, France $17.99

Hard: Beemster XO Gouda, Holland
Baron Philipe de Rothschild Escudo Rojo Cabernet/Carmenere Maipo, Chile $20.99