Cheese & Wine (July 10, 2007)
The best food and wine match I have ever experienced was in Alsace some twelve years ago. I was in a restaurant just outside Colmar and I ordered a slice of Munster and a glass of Gewürztraminer. The cheese came in a birthday-cake-shaped wedge, warm and slightly molten, layered between sheets of phyllo pastry. The combination of the spicy, aromatic wine with the salty, rank, buttery cheese was as close to manna as I imagine it could be. When I close my eyes I can still remember the sensation. Great food matches are like that and cheese, for those of us who are addicted to it, must rank high on the scale of those moments.
There is an old saying in Bordeaux: "Buy on apples and sell on cheese." Think of biting into a Granny Smith it's really fresh and tinglingly acidic. Apples contain malic acid, which is tart, and so do wines before they are put through malolactic fermentation a secondary fermentation, usually in spring, that converts sharp malic acid to the much softer lactic acid the same acid you find in milk and sour-milk products.
If you're a buyer, you'll want to discover a wine with enough extract and flavour to overcome the acidity in apples. If you're selling wine, you'll want to flatter your product by having the buyer taste it with cheese. The fat in cheese will coat the tongue and soften a wine's rough edges.
But not all wines have the same effect on cheese. The common misconception is that red wines go well with all cheeses. Not necessarily. Try a Barolo with a fresh goat's cheese, for example. Not a happy combination.
According to Gurth Pretty, who's written The Definitive Guide to Canadian Artisanal and Fine Cheeses (published by Whitecap, $29.95), there are today over 1700 brands of cheeses made across Canada by 170 cheese makers in eight provinces. "The Canadian cheese industry," says Pretty, "is where the Canadian wine industry was fifteen years ago. There's a great resurgence of interest in locally made artisanal cheeses. In fact, Balderson, one of the leading Cheddar cheese producers based in Lanark, Ontario, has created two brands specifically with wine in mind. A 20-month old cheddar that goes with white wine and a 40-month old that goes with red wine."
Basically, when it comes to matching cheese and wine, the style of the cheese is most important.
- Unfermented cheeses such as cottage cheese, cream cheese and ricotta need crisp, light-bodied whites or a Brut-style sparkling wine.
- Runny or spreadable cheeses like Brie, Camembert or feta require dry white wines, unoaked preferably, or fruity young reds like Beaujolais or Vapolicella that you can chill to bring out the perception of acidity.
- Semi-soft cheeses such as Limburger, Munster, Oka and Saint-Paulin go best with aromatic wines such as Gewürztraminer or dry Muscat or the lighter reds, such as Gamay and Pinot Noir.
- Harder cheeses like Cheddar or Parmesan marry well with most red wines. The trick here is to determine the age of the cheese. If it's young and fresh a medium-bodied, youthful red is in order; if it's older, a fuller-bodied wine with some maturity. Go for Amarone, Cabernet blends, Barolo/Barbaresco, Shiraz , Tempranillo or Zinfandel.
- Blue cheeses can range from creamy, as in Dolce Latte, to firm (Stilton, Roquefort). The mold is slightly bitter and the style of cheese a little salty especially when it is aged. The wine style that best suits is a sweet wine high in alcohol, such as Port, Sherry, Icewine, Bual or Marsala.