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Serving Port with Camembert? That Does Not Compute

Two studies turn a scientific eye on the art of pairing wine and cheese

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: February 2, 2006

Matching a wine with the right cheese can be a daunting task, with all the available choices out there. So two teams of researchers set out to see if the art of pairing could be backed up by science. What they found is that the conventional wisdom isn't always right.

For example, many people serve fine red wines with cheese, particularly hard cheeses, which are believed to be the best match. But one study, from Canada, reports that white wines are far more versatile with cheese than reds—something already known by many chefs and wine experts. The second study, from California, discovered that cheese generally subdues, rather than enhances, the flavors in red wines, although it didn't evaluate whether the combinations were enjoyable.

Riesling turned out to be the most versatile wine with different cheeses in the Canadian study. Coauthor Marjorie King, a sensory research technician for the government agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was inspired to do the research after organizing a few wine and cheese workshops for festivals. "It appeared that there were broad guidelines on pairing cheese and wine that had been recommended by 'experts,'" she said, "and I wondered if these guidelines would be validated under controlled scientific conditions."

In some cases, the guidelines worked, such as the recommendation to pair soft cheeses with white wines. Others, such as matching hard cheeses with red wines, did not always hold true. "In our work, the Camembert paired better with white than red wines," King said. "However, the aged cheddar, which is a hard cheese, paired well with the lighter reds and whites but not with the more full-bodied reds."

The study, published in the Journal of Food Quality, used nine Canadian cheeses and 18 British Columbia wines. Twenty-seven wine-and-food professionals were recruited to judge how well each wine went with each cheese on a 12-point, "deviation-from-ideal" scale. A score of 0 meant that the cheese completely dominated the taste of the wine, and a score of 12 meant that the wine completely dominated the flavor of the cheese. (Domination was defined as a feeling that one was taking away from the flavor of the other.) A score of 6 was considered perfect, with the wine and cheese harmonizing in the mouth, without either being stronger than the other. The researchers created a mean score for each pairing, as well as an overall versatility score for each wine.

The "ideal" score went to two different pairings. A Gamay rosé with a three-year-old cheddar scored a perfect 6.0, as did an unoaked Chardonnay paired with a semisoft, surface-ripened cheese called La Providence d'Oka.

A dry Riesling earned the best score, 6.07, for versatility with the range of cheeses. An unoaked Pinot Noir was the most versatile red, scoring 5.66. Overall, the whites tended to be more versatile, with mean scores between 5 and 7, than the reds, which mostly had mean scores about 7. Whites also accounted for some of the other best matches, including Pinot Gris with blue cheese, sparkling wine with the firm, sharp Boerenkaas and a Sauvignon Blanc with the semisoft Migneron de Charlevoix, all of which scored 6.1.

The least versatile wine was a fortified Port-style bottling, with an overall score of 9.10, as it overpowered all the cheeses. Port is generally believed to be a good match with Stilton and other blue cheeses, and indeed it didn't fare too badly—scoring 7.8—with a cheese called Bleu Bénédiction. Likewise, sweet whites are also thought to be good matches for blue cheeses, and a Riesling ice wine scored 7.3 with the same cheese. But the Port-style wine also provided the most overpowering match of the tasting; when it was paired with a Camembert, the combination earned a score of 10.4.

The results may contain flaws as they are based on a method that tries to quantify a subjective quality, the authors acknowledged in the text. "Judges varied considerably in their individual assessments," they wrote, "reflecting a high degree of personal expectation and preference."

Taking a slightly different angle than King's research, the judges in a study from the University of California, Davis, were asked to determine if cheeses enhanced the qualities of red wines. Instead, none of the cheeses tasted were found to increase the wines' flavors, possibly due to cheese proteins that may coat the taste buds, said coauthor Hildegarde Heymann, a professor of viticulture and enology.

The study, which only looked at red wines, not whites, is set to be published in the March issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.

Eleven trained UC, Davis, students were asked to rate the compatibility of 64 wine-and-cheese combinations. Eight red wines were chosen, two each of four different varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Seven of the wines were from California, plus one Shiraz from Australia. Eight cheeses were also picked: two soft cheeses, mozzarella and Teleme; two medium-hard cheddars from New York and Connecticut; two hard cheeses, Emmental and Gruyère; and two blue cheeses, Gorgonzola and Stilton.

The judges first tried the wines without the cheese. Then, they tried all combinations of wine and cheese, over the course of three tasting sessions. The judges were asked if the introduction of cheese helped to increase the flavor of the wine, intensifying several wine-related tastes such as oak, mushroom, bell pepper and leather.

Heymann said that, since red wine is believed to pair best with hard cheeses, her team believed that soft and blue cheeses would not add much to the red wines and perhaps overpower them. However, she said, "we found that all cheese decreased the intensity of wine's flavors."

This is not necessarily a bad thing, she added. "If a wine is too strong because it is too young or if it's too tannic, cheese can help mellow the flavor," she said. The result could make the wine more palatable, she added.

Further, the judges were not asked if they found a certain pairing likable. "We never asked how much a certain combination was liked," said Heymann. "We had the expectation that the wine attribute would increase, but that doesn't mean the result was unpleasant."

Of course, lovers of wine and cheese may want to make up their own minds, said King, who noted that her study isn't meant to be taken too seriously. "I think the wide variation in the individual assessments validated the importance of consumers being comfortable with their own personal preference," she said. "Having said this, I would hope that this work might be an invitation for individuals to explore new wines paired with different cheeses and make their own assessments."

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