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Getting a nose for matching cheese and wines
By John H. Isacs

IF you love food and wine, then you most likely enjoy eating cheese and wine together.

Good any time of year, a glass of wine with the appropriate cheese is ideal for warming the body and soul during Shanghai's cold winter season.

These symbiotic partners magically combine their unique qualities to bring joy to the palate.

Long history

We recently discovered that the history of wine is 7,000 or more years old, and this history is getting older with every new archeological discovery or advancement in DNA analysis. Most historians believe cheese was first made by accident and consumed over 10,000 years ago by herding tribes in the Near East.

Milk from some of the first sheep herders was stored in the skins and innards of animals and sometimes due to special micro and macro climatic conditions would sometimes turn to curd.

The herders soon learned how to replicate the conditions necessary for turning fresh milk into the curd that makes longer lasting cheese and therefore the art of cheese making was born.

Some of the earliest documented evidence of cheese-making comes from Sumerian tablets that detail several ancient approaches to making cheeses of different flavors and textures. The result was described as solid milk with the flavors of meats and seafood.

Homer's "Odyssey" recounts the making of cheese by the mythological monster Cyclops 800 years before the birth of Christ. The Romans then took cheese-making to new levels and transported it to the vast expanses of their empire.

Unlike milk and other fresh dairy products, cheese better survived the long and arduous travels to the distant lands of the empire. It was also in Roman times that we start to get the first writings on the synergistic relationship between cheese and wines. Young lovers during the Roman Empire were described as feeding each other bits of creamy cheese by hand while bathing in - and drinking - wines.

In the Middle Ages, the nobility disparaged the consumption of cheese as well as many common vegetables, instead centering their diet on meats and items sweetened with honey. Medical historians are quick to point out that the vegetable and cheese-based diets of many peasants were in fact far more healthy that the protein and honey diets of the nobility.

The upper classes of Europe rediscovered the joys of cheese during the Renaissance and this was also the time that many of the most popular cheeses of the modern day were discovered.

Mentions of cheddar cheese are first recorded in England in 1500, while Parmesan made its appearance in Italy in 1597, followed by other European favorites Gouda in 1697 and Camembert in 1791. If the history of these cheeses doesn't tickle your palate, then their modern-day descendants enjoyed with the appropriate wines certainly will.

Wine and cheese pairing

There are nearly as many styles of cheese as there are styles of wine. The British Cheese Board defines 700 distinct cheeses, while Italy is said to have more than 500 and France approximately 400 cheese styles. Considering that the diversity of wine varieties and styles easily numbers in the thousands, pairing these two epicurean may seem a daunting task. In fact, it need not be.

To develop some basic ground rules in pairing wine and cheese, I consulted a French friend who also happens to be a very accomplished chef and wine connoisseur.

Eric Meunier hails from the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon, and has been enjoying cheese and wine since childhood. He's worked with three-star chefs and cooked for world leaders and celebrities and is known internationally for his extreme passion for, as well as knowledge of, cheese and wine.

Most wine and gourmet people in China would tend to think that red wines are best with cheese. Menuire points out that this concept of red wine and cheese being the best partners is more a result of the sequence of serving food than their actual pairing qualities.

In a classic French meal, cheese is served after the main course and by this time people are already drinking red wines.

He believes - and I concur - that white wines can actually be just as good or even better than red wines as companions to cheese. It all depends on the cheese and the wine.

A fresh white wine with good acidity and balanced fruit flavors is one of the most versatile to pair with cheese. From a soft mild buffalo mozzarella served by itself or in the classic Italian appetizer insalata Caprese to a more flavorful and pungent soft cheese like the classic Normandy cheese Camembert, a dry white wine makes perfect sense.

Try an elegant Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France or a bright and clean Albarino from the northwest of Spain with these savory soft cheeses as the acidity of the wines cuts through the fat in the cheeses and refreshes the palate, thereby also heightening flavor sensitivity.

The fruitiness of these white wines also provides additional flavor dimensions.

Hard cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar are usually served with red wines, but some weighty whites like a Napa Valley or Nelson's Bay Chardonnay are equally good partners. With Parmesan cheese I often serve a nice Tuscan or Emilia-Romagna Sangiovese red, or a Tuscan Chardonnay.

All three wines wonderfully embellish the flavors of the cheese. With mild cheddar I would recommend a lighter Chardonnay, perhaps a young Burgundy or a Chardonnay from northern Italy.

Sharp cheddars benefit from a fruity and smooth red wine, like an Aussie Shiraz or even a California Petit Sirah, which, by the way, is unrelated to the Shiraz or Syrah varieties despite the similar name.

When we get to the world of extreme cheeses, in other words blue cheeses like Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgaonzola, there are some historic combinations that still make great sense today.

Nothing tastes better than a tasty Stilton cheese with a vintage or old tawny port or a fine old sweet Oloroso sherry.

One of the gourmet world's most hedonistic experiences comes when a good Roquefort that has been aged in the Combalou caves in France is served with a top Sauternes or Barsac sweet wine from southern Bordeaux.

Finally, a properly aged Gorgonzola dances beautifully in the palate with a sweet Tuscan Vin Santo, or if you want a red wine, a very big and ripe Amarone with sufficient sweetness to balance the pungency of the cheese.

With all truly stinky cheeses, sweet wines make the most sense as they help reboot and harmonize the palate from the extreme flavor and aroma sensations of the cheeses.


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