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Wine & Cheese (December 22, 2008)

Have you ever tried a glass of Beaujolais with a grilled cheese sandwich? The pairing can lift that nursery food into the realms of a gastronomic delight.

But the best cheese and wine match I have ever experienced was on my first visit to Alsace some twenty-five years ago. In a small restaurant outside Colmar I ordered a Munster cheese dish that had been baked in layers of flaky phyllo pastry. It was sliced birthday-cake-style and served warm so that the cheese layered throughout the pastry was almost molten. The accompanying wine was a chilled glass of Hugel Gewürztraminer. I can still remember the combination in my mind's palate – the velvety, rank, salty cheese, the flaky, buttery pastry and the spicy, aromatic wine of contrasting yet complementary flavour. My mouth waters at the memory as I write.

Wine and cheese. Cheese and wine. Almost like love and marriage when the partners are carefully chosen.

There is an old adage in the Bordeaux wine trade that merchants swear by: "Buy on apples and sell on cheese." Try the test for yourself. Take a Granny Smith apple and a slice of aged cheddar. Taste them independently with a glass of any red wine – starting with the apple – and see what happens. Apples, especially Granny Smiths, contain malic acid, which tastes sour. In fact, winemakers in cool climate regions put their wines through what is called a malolactic fermentation in the spring – a secondary fermentation that converts the sharp malic acid into the softer, less aggressive lactic acid (the acidity you find in milk). This will make the wine taste rounder and less "sour." If a wine can overcome the malic acid in an apple when tasted together, it must have lots of concentrated flavour and is therefore a good, marketable wine.

On the other hand, cheese flatters wine. The fat in cheese coats the palate and smoothes out any rough edges in a wine, making the tannin in reds appear more supple and the acidity in whites seem less astringent.

But not all wines go well with all cheeses. There is a commonly held notion that red wines are best with a variety of cheeses whether they're soft, semi-soft, hard or blue. This misconception was compounded by the fact that most hosts offer the cheese tray after the main course, during which a red wine is most often served. The cheese is meant to "mop up" the remainder of the red wine. But in my experience white wines with light or no oak ageing are far more compatible with most cheeses. A simple rule of thumb would be:

  • Dry white wines with white and runny cheeses (like Chèvre, Camembert, Brie)
  • Light red wines with semi-soft cheeses (like Port Salut, Pont L'Évêque)
  • Medium to full-bodied reds with hard cheeses (like Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda)
  • Sweet wines with blue cheeses (like Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort)

The French, who probably eat more cheese than any other nation, serve their cheese tray after dessert; while the British, who adore French wines, eat their cheese before the dessert. I'm with the Brits on this issue, since there is usually dry wine from the main course left over that you can finish with the cheese. And by serving cheese immediately after the main course you are not moving from sweet back to savoury taste sensations. This menu sequence also allows you to finish the meal with a dessert wine to accompany "the pudding."

I offer the following charts as to the wine styles that best complement a range of cheeses.

Matching Canadian wine & Canadian cheese

Canadian cheese Canadian wine style
Bocconcini Gamay Noir, Zweigelt, Pinot Noir
Brick Cabernet Franc, Merlot
Brie Chardonnay Reserve, Pinot Blanc
Brie (double crème) Very dry sparkling wine, Auxerrois
Brie (triple crème) Unoaked Chardonnay, Aligoté, very dry sparkling wine
Camembert Chardonnay (barrel-aged), Pinot Gris
Cantonnier Chardonnay (medium-bodied), Gamay Noir
Cheddar (mild) Chardonnay, Riesling Reserve
Cheddar (old) Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Merlot
Colby Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, rosé or light unoaked red
Crottin Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc
Emmental Auxerrois, dry Riesling, Gamay Noir
Ermite Bleu Select Late Harvest Riesling/ Late Harvest Vidal, port-style red
Farmers Cabernet Franc, Merlot
Feta Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, dry sparkling
Friulano Chardonnay, Reserve Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Gouda Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet blends
Gruyère Riesling, lightly oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet/Merlot blend Meritage
Havarti Unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris
Marble Chardonnay Reserve, Cabernet Blends, Merlot
Monterey Jack Oak-aged Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Oka Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, light reds
Provolone Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch
Raclette Dry Riesling, Gamay Noir
Saint-Benoît Oak-aged Chardonnay, Gamay, Merlot
Saint-Paulin Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc
Swiss Chardonnay, Cabernet rosé, Gamay
Vacherin Dry Riesling, young Cabernet Sauvignon

 
Matching international cheeses with international wines

International cheese International wine
Asiago Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo d' Alba
Brick Zinfandel, Côtes du Rhône, California Pinot Noir
Brie Sancerre, Frascati/Beaujolais
Camembert Burgundy, dry Riesling, Vouvray
Cheddar Rhône, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Zinfandel
Cheshire Beaujolais, Valpolicella, Gamay
Chèvre (goat's cheese) Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé
Coulommiers Burgundy, Pinot Noir, Merlot
Crottin Dry white Chablis, Sancerre
Danish Blue Oloroso sherry, Sauternes/Late Bottled Vintage port
Edam Beaujolais, Valpolicella, Gamay
Emmental Mâcon Blanc, Riesling
Époisse Marc de Bourgogne, grappa
Feta Greek whites, Pouilly-Fumé, Fumé Blanc
Gorgonzola Amarone, Late Harvest Zinfandel, Ruby Port
Gouda Rioja, red Burgundy, Oregon Pinot Noir
Gruyère Rhône white, Chilean Chardonnay/Chinon
Havarti Frascati, Fendant, Muscadet
Mascarpone German Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, dry Muscat
Monterey Jack Chardonnay, white Rhône/red Burgundy
Mozzarella Chianti, Barbera, Beaujolais
Münster Alsace Gewürztraminer, dry Muscat
Parmigiano Valpolicella, Bardolino, Chianti
Pont L'Évêque Côtes de Rousillon, Zinfandel, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Port-Salut Rhône white, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Reblochon Chablis, Muscadet, Soave
Roquefort Sauternes, Monbazillac/Recioto/port
Tête de Moine Frascati, Fendant, Vernaccia di San Gimignano

 
Matching beer & cheese

Cheese Beer
American Cheese Pilsner
Cheddar (mild) Brown Ale
Cheddar (sharp) Pale Ale
Colby Brown Ale
Emmental Oktoberfest
Feta Wheat Beer
Gloucester Brown Ale
Goat Cheese Wheat Beer
Gorgonzola Barley wine
Gruyére Dark Lager
Havarti Pilsner
Masacarpone Fruit Beer
Monterey Jack Pilsner
Parmesan Amber Lager
Romano Pale Ale
Roquefort Belgian beer
Stilton Belgian beer
Swiss Bock

 

 

 

 

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