SERVING wine and cheese together is always a good idea, especially as our Shanghai weather turns cooler.
The days are becoming shorter and there's a distinct chill in the air reminding us that winter beckons. A lovely wine properly paired with cheese is one of the best ways to warm your body and soul.
Mankind's consumption of cheese predates recorded history making it even older than wine. Food historians speculate that cheese was first consumed about 8,000 BC or about the time when sheep were first domesticated.
The discovery of cheese was probably accidental. Milk was stored in animal skins and internal organs and this likely resulted in some of the milk turning into curd thereby becoming the earliest cheese.
The first documented evidence of cheese was in Sumer about 5,500 years ago. We'll probably never know when and where cheese was first made, but this magical food has become globally popular.
Decades ago when I first arrived in China, very few of my Chinese friends ate cheese. Back then when my Chinese friends were exposed to cheese they often acted a lot like my Western friends today when exposed to stinky tofu.
Fortunately, today cheese is becoming ever more popular, especially with younger people. While still not a mainstream food, I believe the future of cheese in China like that of wine is bright.
Let's take a look at different styles of cheese and their natural wine partners and how these epicurean delights work their magic together.
Buffalo mozzarella is an excellent cheese for beginners as it's quite mild and has a pleasant slightly snappy texture. Native to southern and central Italy, the earliest references of mozzarella date back to the 12th century.
When enjoyed with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil in the classic Italian appetizer Insalata Carprese, a perfect wine companion is a fresh and dry Italian white wine from northern Italy like the Marco Felluga Pinot Grigio DOC from Friuli or the Alois Lageder Sauvignon Blanc DOC from Alto Adige.
In both cases, the freshness of the white wines adds subtle nutty flavor dimensions to the cheese while emphasizing the natural sweetness of the ripe tomatoes. These dry whites also tend to bring out a pleasant note of spiciness in the fresh basil.
When served on a pizza with Parma ham, bacon or sausages, buffalo mozzarella is wonderful with a light-bodied basic Chianti red wine. Three Chiantis that fit the bill are the Ruffino Chianti DOCG, Castello di Querceto Chianti DOCG and Carpineto Chianti Castaldo DOC.
Serve the Chianti wines slightly chilled and the acidity in the wines waken up the flavors of the pizza while the lively red fruit in the wines embellish the flavorful meats. Basic Chianti level wines with their good acidity, light tannins and exuberant fruit are quite food friendly but they don't age terribly well so make sure you pick a recent vintage.
Similar in texture to other popular soft cheeses like Brie and Fontina but with a little more of a flavor kick, Camembert is a cheese lover's dream. First made by Normandy farmer Marie Harel in 1791, the best Camembert cheese still comes from Normandy and is made with unpasteurized milk.
Examples made with pasteurized milk can still be delicious but are somewhat less flavorful. Numerous red wines pair well with Camembert but right bank Bordeaux reds with their soft tannins are particularly good. Chateaux Cadet Soutard, Dassault, Canon and Villemaurine are four Grand Cru Saint-Emilion reds that don't cost an arm and a leg and will bring out all the delicate flavors and rich texture of Camembert cheeses.
Hard cheese classics
Two of my favorite cheeses are cheddar and Parmesan. But not all cheddar and Parmesan cheeses are created equal. Pick sharp cheddar and Parmesan-Reggiano. When you see the word Reggiano following Parmesan you know the cheese comes from the prime Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna production areas that are all in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
Sharp cheddar cheese is great with many types of red wines, especially smooth and generous reserve level Spanish Tempranillo wines from Rioja.
In Shanghai you can find excellent reserve red wines that are reasonably priced like the Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva and El Coto de Imaz Reserva Rioja. These Spanish beauties act as the perfect foils for the sharp and stimulating flavors of the cheddar while also facilitating digestion of the flavorful cheese.
When enjoying Parmesan-Reggiano cheese my favorite wine companion is a good Sangiovese red wine. The innate freshness and smooth tannins of wines made with this varietal make the best Parmesan cheeses taste even better by highlighting their deep and complex flavors while assuaging the palate of the saltiness of the cheese. There are plenty of good Sangiovese wines in Shanghai.
Some of my favorites are the Barone Ricasoli, Brolio Chianti Classico DOCG and Mazzei Chianti Classico Castello di Fonterutoli DOCG from Tuscany and the budget friendly Umberto Cesari Ca'Grande Sangiovese di Romagna DOC from Emilia-Romagna.
Stinky and sweet
One important rule in pairing cheese with wines is the more stinky the cheese, the more sweet the wine. This is a classic example of pairing opposites to create harmony. The best way to offset the extreme flavor sensations of blue cheeses is to drink a sweet wine. The sweetness and fruitiness of the sweet wine balances the strong flavors of the cheese and refreshes the palate.
Classic stinky cheese and wine pairings include the French combination of Roquefort cheese with any good Sauternes or Barsac wine. The sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac are great companions to very pungent cheeses.
If you can afford it and want to partake of one of the gourmet world's most sublime experiences, try a top Roquefort cheese that has been aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon with a bottle of the world's greatest sweet wine, Chateau d'Yquem. For a still excellent, but far more reasonably-priced sweet wine from Sauternes, I recommend the chateaux Doisy-Vedrines, Suduiraut and Roumieu. All three wines offer a classy Sauternes experience.
Other great stinky cheese and wine combinations are pungent English Stilton cheese with fortified sweet wines like Sherry or a vintage Port wine and an Italian Gorgonzola cheese with a big, slightly sweet wine from Veneto like the Zenato, Amorone Della Valpolicella Classico (DOC) or Masi, Costasera Amarone Classico (DOC).