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Wine and Cheese Pairing: A Challenge for Wine Lovers and Sommeliers
By Jessica Dupuy
Mar 1, 2016
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When it comes to wine and food pairings, sommeliers often complain about obvious ingredient challenges such as asparagus, ginger, and artichoke--a particular food item that Food & Wine editor Ray Isle once said cropped up from the earth with the primary mission to mess up a wine pairing.  One other challenging pairing:  Cheese.  Sure, a sharp cheddar can help melt away tannins on a big red Bordeaux.  And the sweeter nature of a ruby port can cover up the savoriness of most other cheeses.  But are these the right pairings?

Generally, you want either the food or the wine to be the dominant focus with the other element as a complement to enhance the overall enjoyment.  But what do you do with a cheese plate?  Most cheese plates, whether served at the beginning or end of a meal include a grassy goat cheese, a hard aged cheese, a creamy paste cheese, and often a style of blue cheese. 

Before trying to tackle a pairing for each of the disparate flavors in the styles, Francis Percival, co-founder for London Gastronomy Seminars and food editor and columnist for The World of Fine Wine, challenges wine professionals to take different approach.  In a recent seminar led by Percival at the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, Percival suggested considering the concept of terroir as an element of understanding how and why cheese is made.  Often times the story behind the cheese can lead to the best wine selection. 

“As wine professionals, you’re often in the trenches working with pairings and with wines that express where they are from.  This means you are in the position to understand cheese, quite frankly, more than most any cheesemongers, cheesemakers, or chefs,” said Percival.  “In an ideal world, it would be the sommelier that runs the cheese program because chefs do not understand cheese.  It’s simply an ingredient to be manipulated by their own genius and reduced into a dish, which has the stamp of them.”

By contrast, Percival argued that wine professionals are regularly interacting with consumers who may not be in the wine profession, but have a passion for knowing the story behind a wine and can carry on a depth of conversation at some level of technical understanding about wine.  Wine professionals are often communicating to customers the variable products of agriculture, vintage year, climatic conditions, and philosophical decisions behind the product. 

“Cheese lacks those people,” said Percival.  “Wine is the only product I know where you might, table side, have a discussion about the system of farming that a particular producer uses.”

It’s that agricultural connection and understanding that wine professionals can leverage when considering wines to pair with cheeses. 

Of course, when considering four cheeses in the aforementioned styles, it’s not a trick question as to which one wine would be a good fit for all.  The answer is…there isn’t one.  But just as wine can be a great conversation starter, so can cheese.  So why limit the wine selection to just one option?  In Percival’s seminar, he shared a number of cheeses to sample along four distinctive styles of wine, including a spirit.  Each of the selections revealed certain characteristics of both the wines and cheeses that lead to a conversation about their place of origin and style of production. 

A tasting flight to accompany a selection of cheeses offers a more interesting experience.  Using elements of acid, creaminess, nuttiness and savoriness as related to both the cheese and wine, you’re left with a compelling experiment for the palate.

As Percival showcased in his seminar, cheeses higher in acid such as Bonne Bouche goat’s milk cheese from Vermont Creamery or Ste. Maure de Touraine raw goat’s milk these from Vincent & Marie Agnès Peltier, would benefit from a higher acid wine, such as sparkling wine or Riesling. 

Mountain cheeses that have less moisture, but less acid such as Challerhocker from Kaserei Tufertschwil in St. Gallen, Switzerland marry well with a medium-bodied wine that has seen a little bit of oak, and Hahn Family Wines Santa Lucia Highlands 2013 Chardonnay provides a good example.  For a good contrast, a higher moisture British style cheese such as a Lancashire or cheddar can reveal different flavors in the same wine. 

For creamy cheeses that retain moisture such as Reblechon from Daviet Family in Haute-Savoie, France, or Tunworth Hampshire Cheese from the United Kingdon, try the nuttiness and oxidized characters of a Madiera or even drier style of sherry such as Bodegas Tradicón Palo Cortado VORS sherry. 

And to keep things a little interesting, emphasize the savoriness of a blue cheese such as Colton Bassett Stilton, with the smoky savoriness of a Scotch such as Laphroaig 10 year-old. 

“Stilton is as salty as boiled ham,” said Percival.  “Plus, it has high amounts of phenols.  With a cheese like this, turn the intensity up and pair with something that mirrors those phenols such as heavily-peated Scotch.”

Pairings like these suggest an approach to getting good matches, and Percival encourages a focus on the particular problems posed by the style of any unusual cheese or wine.  When faced with the distinctive flavor characteristics derived from the location, climate, and specific agricultural conditions inherent to the milk or wine grapes of a region, one must search for synergies--and avoid clashes--if a great pairing is to result.  When taken seriously, that’s a serious challenge when dealing with cheeses or wines with strong characters.  But it is also a challenge that can be irresistibly interesting for those of us who love these two supremely varied and delicious products.