Conventional wisdom often calls for matching wine and cheese from the same region, such as Loire Sauvignon Blanc with the valley's equally famous goat cheese. This does not necessarily work for California's most famous white, Chardonnay, and cheese that comes from the same place, say Sonoma. After all, Europe has had a head start of many centuries.
Not to worry. There is such a diversity of fine cheeses and wines from the Golden State that you can create a successful pairing more easily than you might imagine. "It's really more about the style of the cheese and wine than the terroir," says Starr Cornwall, cheesemonger at the Wine Pavilion in Lake Forest, Calif.
The long-prevalent style of California Chardonnay, however, is not especially cheese-friendly. A major problem is oak, especially new oak, used for fermenting and/or aging. Oak adds body, sweetness and vanilla, to name a few characteristics not always welcome with cheese. Oak can also mute the refreshing quality of the acidity in the wine.
While cheese pairing possibilities for oaky Chardonnays can be limited, the good news is that fresher, leaner and crisper California Chardonnays are becoming more common. "At this year's California Artisan Cheese Festival, we had several pairings with Chardonnay, some of which were fabulous," says Lynne Devereux, a cheese educator and former coordinator of the March festival. "In the past, California Chardonnay was off the table. Now the styles have more natural acidity. They are also less oaked or not oaked at all and have less malolactic [fermentation, which turns the wine's crisper malic acid into creamier lactic acid]."
Devereux also notes that traditional California Chardonnays are higher in alcohol, though we are now seeing more lower-alcohol wines from cooler climates, such as Santa Barbara and Sonoma Coast. "High alcohol burns out the sweet milk flavors in cheese," she says.
To see for myself, I matched two different styles of California Chardonnay with six California cheeses. The Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros 2007 is rich, creamy and full-bodied, with spicy, toasty oak. It is higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than the unoaked Four Vines Chardonnay Santa Barbara County Naked 2007, which has fresh citrus and green apple flavors and minerality.
Cornwall and Devereux cite Bellwether Farms San Andreas sheep's milk cheese as a good candidate with the Rombauer because, Devereux says, "sheep's milk cheese is naturally oily and deliciously fatty, which can tame the sweetness and bitterness of oak." Indeed it did, creating the best match for this wine. However, this cheese and the Four Vines seemed to be traveling on separate tracks, not crashing but also not harmonizing.
Apples and Cheddar have always been a winning combination. So it wasn't surprising that the apple flavors in the Four Vines worked well with Fiscalini Farmstead Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar. The oak and spice of the Rombauer cancelled out the nuances that the cheese develops during 16 months of aging.
Triple-cream cheeses need a wine that can cut through their mouth-coating quality. With the unctuous Marin French Cheese Company's Triple Crème Brie (packaged under their "Rouge et Noir" label), the Four Vines didn't really cleanse the palate. Instead it allowed the cheese to gently wash over it, creating a pleasant, if not exciting, sensation. The sweetness in the Rombauer played a bit with the creamy cheese, but ultimately this Chardonnay's oak and heaviness did in the match.
The crispness and fruitiness of the Four Vines took on a Sauvignon Blanc-like quality that allowed it to coexist easily with Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog goat cheese. And while the butteriness of the Rombauer had a brief flirtation with the Humboldt Fog's creamy quality, in the end the cheese's goat tanginess finished off the relationship.
Washed-rind cheeses, such as the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, have a pungency that can wreak havoc on many wines. The Four Vines put up a good fight, but it needed more acidity and fruit sweetness (such as that in a German Riesling spätlese). The bold flavors of the cheese and the equally strong flavors in the Rombauer resulted in a standoff.
But while some cheeses work with neither Chardonnay, others bring out qualities in both. Point Reyes Farmstead Original Blue isn't as sharp or salty as many blue cheeses, which, along with its creaminess, made it pair surprisingly well with the Four Vines. Rombauer's sweetness and oak spiciness created some interesting flavors with the Point Reyes.
It's clear that unoaked California Chardonnay, like unoaked wines in general, is a more versatile companion for cheese—indeed, for most foods. Nonetheless, if you love oaky Chardonnays, you can still enjoy them with milder sheep's milk cheeses and milder, creamy blue cheeses. And maybe some California cheeses none of us have heard about yet.
Sam Gugino has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1994, becoming a regular columnist in 1996.