Wine & Cheese Pairing

If ever there was a myth about wine, it is that it pairs great with cheese.

When was the last time you ever thought about adding a little wine to your milk? Doesn't sound too appetizing does it? So where did the idea of wine and cheese come from?  My guess is that local cheese producers wanted to take advantage of the regional wines that were being produced. I still believe that if you have a wine from an area that produces cheese, try that cheese with the wine (they come from similar terroir).

Wine and Cheese pairings are one of those "tricky" things to work with. Check my series of articles about wine pairing at Wine Pairing Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

There are so many cheeses, there is no way to cover them all, but let's consider the types of cheeses. There are fresh, soft, semi-soft, hard, and blue cheeses. On top of that, cheese can be made from cow's, goat's, or sheep's milk - each imparting different flavor profiles.

In general, when pairing cheese with wine, think the lighter/ fresher the cheese.. go with crisp, fruitier wine.

Semi soft cheeses move up in weight, as well as mouth coating creaminess, so think acid, but with weight and fruit (this can range from a fruity Sauvignon Blanc to a full bodied Pinot Noir, and everything in between).

Hard cheeses tend to be aged longer, and have more distinct flavors. A "rule" to follow here would be, "the stronger the flavor, the bigger the wine" (Merlot to Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon).

Among the cheeses often associated with red wine pairing are blues such as blue cheese and creamy cheeses such as Camembert. However, the creaminess of the cheese is drowned out by the dryness of the tannin in the reds.

Blue Cheese can range from mild to strong. Remember to match salt with sweet, so the salter the cheese, the sweeter the wine. Sweeter styles of white wine such as Sauternes pair best with blue cheese such as Roquefort, as the drink enhances its saltiness.

The acidity of German Riesling offers a nice contrast to the tangy nuttiness of a Parmigiano-reggiano, while the grassy, mineral flavors of French Sauvignon Blanc can also deliver beautiful flavors when paired with goats’ cheese. But the bolder, more tropical flavors of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand tend to be too strong for this effect.

Whites which have been “oaked”, left in oak barrels to absorb the wood’s flavor, should generally be avoided with cheese. Look for those fermented in stainless steel.

If you must pair a red wine with your cheese course, invest in an older wine, such as a traditional Rioja at least five years old, as time will have softened the tannins. But it will still need to be served with a strong cheese such as cheddar, or (my favorite) Manchego.

Port and Stilton are a classic pairing, but instead of the ruby ports, try a lighter tawny Port.

As mentioned, Sauterne with Roquefort is a classic wine and cheese pairing. You may want to even try a Brandy with cheese. We had experimented with Calvados (Apple Brandy) and found that it worked wonderfully with Camembert covered with sauteed onion and apple.

Remember that when you are pairing wine and cheese together, first taste the wine by itself. Next taste the cheese, and sip the wine with the, cheese, wine. Your cheeses should be arranged from mildest to strongest, to help keep your palate from being overloaded. Softer cheese before hard cheese, and cow's milk (the mildest) to Goat, then Sheep and finally Blue Cheeses. The cheese will influence the taste of the wine, more than the wine will influence the cheese. Don't "waste" your best bottle of wine with a cheese pairing.

Another little "trick" with your wine and cheese pairing, is to have some palate cleansers served with the cheese. Water crackers are a nice addition. I have also found that almond nugget and quince paste make a nice addition to a cheese plate.

Twas the Week before Christmas - A Spanish Pairing

Paella Mixta

Twas the week before Christmas, and what should we do?
the malls were too crowded, so let's make some stew! 
No that'd be too normal, we need something rare
Let's do a 5-course dinner with some Spanish flare

The menu was set, and the guest were invited
They were given a recipe that got them excited.
So I put on my chef's coat, and pulled out some wine
after cooking a while, we were ready to dine.

Okay, that is about as far as I can get, with the Christmas theme, but you get the idea. We decided to get a group together for a Spanish wine pairing dinner The idea was to start with the wines, and pair a meal around those Spanish wines. The wines were to progress from a Cava to a white, to red, to dessert. From those wines, we chose the menu items that we felt would work best, and each guest was given a traditional Spanish recipe to make, then bring it on the chosen night, along with their receipts, so the price of the meal would be shared among the different couples.

Here is a copy of the final Spanish Wine Pairing menu (we called our "restaurant" Saetilla - Spanish for Arrowhead, as we live in Lake Arrowhead):
Spanish Wine Pairing Dinner Menu
Trio of Tapas
The dinner was for eight people, but as usual, we had enough food to feed twice as many people. The courses we had, all worked great with the wine. Our Cava choice, for the first course, paired well with all three items, but I think the consensus was that the goat cheese, with onions raisins and garlic worked the best.

For our second course, we had a traditional Gazapacho (cold tomato,cucumber and garlic soup). Originally, I had planned on going with only with an Albarino, but the more I thought about it, I felt a Vin Rosado (rose) from Rioja, might be a better match. I am glad I second guessed myself, and added the Rose. It was an excellent pairing, and one of the surprise wines of the night (and least expensive). Also, the addition of a little Fino Sherry to the Gazapacho was a nice added touch.

The main course of the evening was a Paella Mixta. This was my responsibility for the evening. I decided to pair this with a traditional Rioja. While the Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva was already seven years old, I knew it was going to need some air before drinking. I opened up this bottle and decanted it, about three hours before serving. This was the favorite wine of the night. Smooth, silky, not too tannic, and worked well with all the flavors of our Paella. Even the seafood element (which I typically don't pair with reds) worked nicely. The authentic Spanish Bittersweet Paprika added a nice smokiness to the dish. I have added my recipe to the comments section below.

Cheese Course
Following the European tradition of transitioning from main course to dessert course, we had a cheese plate. Originally, I had only planned on three cheeses, but, since I love cheese, I went overboard, and presented five cheeses along with Quince paste, and almond nougat. To this, I paired a 2009 Ribera del Duero. This was a powerful wine, and I decanted it in my largest decanter, getting as much air in as possible. I opened this five hours before, and I probably could have opened it up a full day before. I thought all the cheeses paired well with this fine Tempranillo, but I would stay away from the Cabrales next time, as I felt it was too strong (even when eaten with the quince paste, which mellowed it a bit). If I were to choose a blue cheese again, I might go with Valdeon, which is not as over powering.

Apple Empanada
Our final dish was an apple empanada. I paired this with a wonderful Sidra (Spanish apple cider). At only 5% alcohol, it was refreshing, and palate cleansing, with just the right amount of apple flavor to work with the empanada. We also had some Calvados left over (okay, I know it's not Spanish, but we had it, and it's made from apples, so why not?).

I've already had requests for my paella recipe. Since it is a "mixta" was my creation, and I will do my best to recreate it, and add it to the comments section of this blog. All the other recipes can be found in different Spanish cookbooks.

The total cost of our dinner was $78/couple. As I mentioned, we had plenty of leftovers, so this easily could have been a $50/couple dinner, if I had bought more wine, and invited 16 people (We just don't have enough seating for that many...or place settings). So, next time you see a wine pairing dinner, where the cost is $150/couple...just remember you can probably do the same, at a more reasonable cost. And in this economy, who isn't for that? Plus you might have some fun learning how to make traditional regional foods, and cooking techniques.

Dessert Wine

As we move into the holiday season, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at dessert wines (not the same as my article on desert wines). When I first started drinking wine, I was immediately attracted to those sweeter style wines. As I tried more and more wine, I found that my palate began to trend towards drier wines. First, the sweet wines disappeared, next the white wines, and all I was left with was red. Now, I have "rediscovered" my love of sweet wines. In the United States, a dessert wine is described as any wine over 14% alcohol. Obviously, there are higher alcohol wines (Zinfandel, or most anything out of California) that are dry, and not sweet. This definition is outdated. To me a dessert wine is anything that has a detectable amount of residual sugar. For example, some German wines are only 6% alcohol, but are very sweet. So, for this discussion, dessert wines are any wine that I could serve at the end of a meal, that have some discernible level of sugar. Even though I could serve them at the end of the meal, you may find that they work well before and during a meal too (think Sauternes with foie gras).

Chateau d'Yquem
There are so many different dessert wines out there, how can you tell them apart? What makes them different from each other? And, what are the appropriate foods to pair with them?

Let's look at how dessert wines are made first. Grapes are sweet to begin with. Have you ever tasted a wine grape, just off the vine, around harvest time? Extremely sweet. They don't taste anything like those table grapes you nibble on at snack time. Matter of fact, wine grapes are said to have the highest sugar content of any fruit, and that's what makes them so great for wine. You need sugar, to act as food for the yeast, which eventually converts into alcohol.

Sweet wines can be made a number of ways. There are fortified dessert wines (such as Port and Madiera), where the grape juice begins to ferment, but is stopped short of full fermentation (where all the sugar is converted to alcohol, and the wine is dry). Fortified refers to the addition of brandy (see my blog on Cognac) into the fermenting grape juice, basically killing the yeast, and stopping any further fermentation. What is left is a sweet juice, fortified with a high alcohol brandy.

Botrytis Cinerea
A second method for producing a sweet wine is through the development of "Noble Rot" on the grapes. This gray mold is known as Botrytis Cinerea (Latin for "ash grape disease"). The beneficial mold (and there is a bad mold too) infects those grapes that are exposed to wet and dry conditions, usually found around bodies of water. The mold, or fungus infects the grapes, and draws water from them, leaving behind a higher concentration of grape sugars, acids and minerals. When fermented, there is a high amount of residual sugar left in the final product. Some of the best known, and most expensive wines in the world are produced from "Noble Rot" grapes: Sauternes and Tokajii. The fungus does add a unique honeysuckle aroma to the wines.

Passito Grapes
Some other methods of increasing the sugar content prior to fermentation include leaving the grapes on the vine longer than usual ("late harvest" wines), producing higher sugar content. Or, allowing the grapes to freeze on the vine, as winter conditions sets in. In this case, the ice crystals are removed, and you are left with a concentrations of solids. These style of wines are known as "ice wines". Another method is to pick the grapes at the normal harvest time, and dry the grapes. This can be done on straw mats (as is done with Vin Santo in Italy) or in drying rooms. These wines are known as "passito" wines in Italy, or "vin de paille" in France.  Again, the idea is to remove the water, and concentrate the remaining solids. The drying method adds a distinct oxidized character to the the final product. A sweet Sherry known as Pedro Ximénez (PX), is a made with a combination of drying, then fortifying.

There are some "lesser" methods for producing sweet wines, which include the addition of sugar (known as chaptalization). The sugar can be in any form: honey, beet sugar, or in some cases, a concentration of grape sugars (known as Süssreserve).

When serving these sweet wines, keep in mind that, in general, you want your wine to be sweeter than the dessert you are serving. Usually these wines are so sweet they can be a dessert by themselves. Whites are typically served slightly chilled, and reds at room temperature. There are some classic pairings that you may want to try, and not all include dessert:

Sauternes and Tokajii paired with foie gras, blue and hard cheeses.
Vin Santo paired with almond biscotti (Cantucci)
Port paired with Stilton Cheese and walnuts
Brechetto d'Acqui - While not traditionally thought of as a dessert wine, I find this sweet, frizzy wine, to be one of the best wines to pair with chocolate. I know others think of Port, but try this one if you can find it.
Madeira (Bual or Malmsey) with anything you would add caramel to: apple pie, pecan pie