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Cheese and wine, two great lifelong companions
2014-09-25
By John H. Isacs

IN my wine-centric world, I usually view foods from the perspective of how they pair with wines. Put simply, wines take priority.

Before a meal, I’ll pick wines according to the general style and characteristics of the cuisine, then according to the individual wines and their serving sequence I’ll select the individual dishes.

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For this week’s column, I thought it would be fun to switch things around and view wines from the perspective of food, in this case one of the most wine-friendly foods of all — cheese.

Cheese and wine date back to the most primitive human civilizations and perhaps even earlier. The first evidence of wine dates back approximately 9,000 years while archeologists have discovered 8,000-year-old pottery jars used for storing cheese.

In all likelihood, cheese is even older. Food historians hypothesize that cheese was the accidental discovery of ancient nomadic tribes who stored fresh milk in animal skins and the membranes of animal organs.

The combination of enzymes from the skins and organ membranes and frequent agitation caused by nomadic wandering would precipitate fermentation and result in mankind’s first cheese. We can also reasonably speculate these ancient goodies were often enjoyed together.

The modern-day romance between cheese and wines is as strong as ever, but contrary to popular belief pairing is neither an automatic nor easy task. Many gourmets believe cheese and red wines are ideal partners but in reality acidic whites and sparklers are usually better bets. There are general rules that can be helpful.

Wine and cheese 101

Modern cheeses may be organized into three categories — mild soft cheese, more pungent semi-hard and hard cheese, and stinky cheese. Most food and wine connoisseurs pair soft creamy cheeses with fresh white wines or sparklers. Light acidic reds also work well. Good examples include fresh buffalo mozzarella with a Prosecco Brut, creamy Brie with a young Burgundy white or a smooth and nutty Fontina cheese with a fresh Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio from northern Italy.

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Slightly more flavorful soft cheeses like Camembert are lovely with a more substantial white Burgundy or village level or above red Burgundy. A Merlot-Cabernet Franc right bank Bordeaux wine featuring soft tannins also works quite well with Camembert.

Semi-hard or hard cheeses go well with a broad range of wines from flavorful dry whites to more substantial red wines. Some lovely cheese and wines duets can be achieved by pairing Emmental with a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, Gouda with a fresh Southern Rhone Grenache and Italian Pecorino cheese with a young Chianti. Monterey Jack cheese from the US with unoaked California Chardonnay is another winning combination.

Few food and wine pairing classics are as perfectly synergistic as stinky cheeses with sweet wines. The extreme pungency of the cheese and sweetness of the wines offset and complement each other.

The acidity in all well-made sweet wines also refreshes the palate and facilitates digestion. Classic combinations include Roquefort cheese with any good sweet Bordeaux wine from Sauternes or Barsac, a pungent English Stilton cheese with vintage Port and Italian Gorgonzola cheese with a heady full bodied, off sweet Amarone red wine from Veneto.

In all cases, never serve the cheese to cold or the wines too hot. For optimal texture and flavor sensations, serve the cheese at room temperature and your wines below room temperature with whites well-chilled and reds no hotter than 18 Celsius.

Two favorites

I love many styles of cheese. But if I had to pick two absolute favorites, I’d choose Parmesan and cheddar cheese.

Parmesan in English, or more properly Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italian, is one of the world’s great cheeses. Often copied but never duplicated all real Parmesan cheese comes from in or around Parma in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.

Two millennium ago the Romans were making hard cheeses similar to modern day Parmesan, and by Medieval times monks in the Parma region made an acclaimed hard cheese called “Paramensis” in Latin. In 2008, the EU decreed that only Parmigiano-Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna is real Parmesan.

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Like many good wines, Parmesan benefits from aging with younger cheeses having a more smooth and fresh character and older versions being more flaky and complex in flavor.

When enjoying Parmesan-Reggiano cheese my favorite wine companion is a good Sangiovese red. The innate freshness and smooth tannins of Sangiovese wines highlight the deep and complex flavors of the cheese while assuaging the palate of any lingering saltiness.

Good Sangiovese wines are easy to find in Shanghai. Some of my favorites are made by the leading producers Barone Ricasoli, Mazzei and Carpineto in Tuscany and Umberto Cesari in Emilia-Romagna.

Cheddar cheese is another passion of mine. It originated from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England, and the first mention of cheddar is in the 12th century official account books of King Henry II. Seems the king loved the stuff so much that he bought 10,000 pounds of the cheese that year alone.

In the 19th century, Englishman Joseph Harding perfected the large scale production of cheddar and the popularity of the cheese grew exponentially. Today it’s the most popular cheese in the UK, Australia and New Zealand and the second most popular cheese in the US.

Cheddar cheese is produced in most English-speaking countries but the original and most authentic examples are labeled West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. Some excellent cheddars are also made in the US states of New York, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Mild cheddar cheese pairs nicely with zesty Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino whites, while sharp cheddar cheese is best with a well-balanced red wine with soft tannins.

Perhaps my favorite wine with sharp cheddar is a Spanish Tempranillo from northern Spain.

The soft texture and balanced fruit and tannin qualities of these wines act as a foil to the sharp and stimulating flavors of the cheddar. The producers Marques de Riscal, Muga and El Coto from Rioja and Elias Mora from Toro all make superior Tempranillos.

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