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Hard Cheese, Old Man

Pairing wine with cheese may not be as simple as you think

Harvey Steiman
Posted: February 27, 2006

Like most people, I get chuffed when science validates my own pet opinions. When two recent university studies agreed that matching wine with cheese is a dicier deal than most people think, I pumped my fist and uttered a loud, "Yeah!"

A Canadian study agreed with my long-held personal belief that white wines are generally far more amenable to cheese than are reds. And a California paper found that cheese subdues, rather than enhances, the flavors of red wine.

Before anyone concludes that I am advocating a wine-free cheese course, let me clarify. Matching wine with roast chicken, a grilled steak or a piece of salmon is easy. They're made for each other. But that stinky Époisses will almost certainly put the kibosh on that magnificent Burgundy you opened especially for it.

The right wine with cheese can make you smile. The wrong wine? Ouch. Why?

Cheese is basically curdled milk. As it ages and drains, it gets progressively more firm, its flavors more complex. Depending on whether a cow, goat or sheep produced the milk, you can expect certain flavors to emerge. Different cheesemaking processes and the use of molds and other additional ingredients introduce other characteristics, and all those variables affect the wine you drink with them.

It should come as no surprise that a wine that works with a mellow, subtle Parmigiano-Reggiano is not necessarily the same one that goes well with a fresh, tart goat cheese. In the Canadian study, dry Riesling performed best with the greatest variety of cheeses. I can see why. Riesling's crisp texture and light structure won't clash with the wide range of elements in various cheeses. But the best specific matches were rosé with cheddar and unoaked Chardonnay with a semi-soft cheese.

The study gave the highest marks to wines that balanced perfectly with the food, where neither the cheese nor the wine dominated. That's a valid approach, but I'm not sure that it's ideal. One of my favorite wine-and-food matches is fresh goat cheese with a youthful, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc. The tanginess of the cheese sets off extra fireworks in the wine. In this case the wine can be said to dominate, but it's my idea of wine-and-cheese nirvana.

The University of California, Davis, study asked tasters whether the cheeses enhanced the qualities of the red wines drunk with them. A Wine Spectator Online report, written in advance of the paper's publication next month in the American Journal of Viticulture and Enology, explains that the tasters tried two Cabernet Sauvignons, two Merlots, two Pinot Noirs and two Syrahs with eight cheeses: two soft, two medium-hard, two hard and two blues. The tasters discovered that all of them subdued the wines.

I think I know why. They picked the wrong cheeses if they wanted to make red wine sing.

The soft cheeses were mozzarella and Teleme, milky, mouthcoating cheeses that experience tells me are better-suited to white wines any day of the week. Among the few soft cheeses that match up with reds are Brie and Camembert, which can do well with Pinot Noir if you catch the cheese before it gets too runny and ammoniated.

The medium-hard cheeses were cheddars from New York and Connecticut. In my experience, cheddar kills red wine, which may be why the British often drink ale with them. Cheddar is a cooked cheese that develops a distinctively crumbly, oily texture as it ages. It is strongly flavored and has a hint of bitterness. I like white wines with them, especially if they are a bit sweet to balance the cheese's slight bitterness.

The hard cheeses were Emmental and Gruyère. Bad idea. These have strong flavors that some people liken to smelly socks, OK with a white Burgundy but not a pleasant combination with the fruit and spice of red wine. Why didn't they test Parmigiano-Reggiano, which goes with almost any red? Or a mellow aged sheep's milk cheese such as Pyrenees or Vermont Shepherd, one of America's greatest cheeses? Those make all kinds of reds sit up and smile. Mellow is the key.

Finally, the blue cheeses Gorgonzola and Stilton are classic partners with sweet wines. Why? I don't like moldy flavors in my red wine. Do you? A dessert wine's sweetness helps cover the moldy character in the cheese.

I used to open a special bottle of red wine to go with the cheese course, but no more. Too many strong-flavored, gooey cheeses ruined too many great bottles for that. White wine is a safer bet, sweet wines the safest. But if half the red wine remains in the bottle and you want to finish it off with cheese, choose one that's hard in texture and mellow in flavor. Works every time.

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