I love cheese. Whilst I don’t consider myself an expert, I like to think I know my way around most cheeseboards, and I’ve been meaning to blog about wine and cheese matching for years. So when my local store in Muswell Hill was about to re-open after a major refit earlier this year, I suggested to Kate, the manager, that she mark the event with a cheese and wine matching experiment.
The team in Muswell Hill needed no second invitation, and after a visit to the Cheeses of Muswell Hill, a fabulous small cheesemonger just around the corner from the store (and long time favourite of yours truly), they set about matching four distinct styles of cheese to different wines from across the world.
With the plethora of styles of cheese available it’s difficult to generalise on perfect wine matches, but I reckon there are three fundamental features common to virtually all cheeses that play a big role in determining which wines will “work” and which won’t: fat, salt and acidity.
Fat is important because of the effect it has on your palate. Fatty foods tend to coat the mouth and reduce perception of some flavours in the accompanying wine. Most cheeses are between 25%-35% fat, so you need a wine that can cut through that effect.
Salty foods can make dry and/or tannic wines seem bitter on the palate, which is why dessert wines can be such a successful match for some particularly salty cheeses (blues for example).
Since cheese is made by souring milk it is naturally acidic, although some cheeses have more pronounced acidity than others. More acidic cheeses will need a more acidic wine to be in balance.
Something else to consider is that there is often a geographical association between local wines and local cheeses, in much the same way as there often is between and wine and food generally (as you’ll see in the results of our tasting session). It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation as to why this happens, but I’m a firm believer in it, and it probably explains why the results of the tasting seem so Francophile – four French wines picked with three French cheeses.
As you’ll see in the video the team reached some pretty clear conclusions about their favourite combinations.
Valencay with Sancerre
It’s a classic partnership from France’s Loire valley – a delicate goat’s cheese with a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The freshness and delicacy of the cheese demand a wine that won’t overpower it, yet with crisp acidity to balance the creaminess of the cheese.
Valencay is a small town famous for its beautiful château, its cheese, and more recently its wine – it has an AOC for both cheese and wine, uniquely in France. The cheese has a distinctive cut-off pyramid shape (I’ve heard that Napoleon objected to the original ‘true’ pyramid reminding him of his Egyptian campaigns). It is dusted with charcoal before being ripened in caves or humid maturing rooms for three weeks to develop a light bloom. It’s not the “goatiest” goats cheese, hence its delicacy of flavour.
Sancerre is about 60 miles to the east, and along with near-neighbour Pouilly-Fumé produces a definitive Sauvignon Blanc, elegant, chalky, floral and boasting crisp citrus acidity. In this tasting, the example wine was the superb 2008 Château de Sancerre (£14.99 or buy 2 save £2 = £13.99), but this brilliant wine and food match would work equally well with one of our other grower’s Sancerres. Likewise, this would work nicely with a similar goat’s cheese such as a crottin de Chavignol, which comes from farms around Sancerre itself.
Roquefort with dessert wine
Another tried-and-tested partnership from French cuisine, marrying a strong, salty blue cheese with a rich dessert wine. Powerful blue cheeses such as Roquefort, Stilton and Cabrales will overpower most wines, and in particular the combination of saltiness and acidity will tend to over-emphasise the tannins in a dry red and make it seem bitter. The sugar in a dessert wine counteracts this perfectly, although I would be careful with particularly pungent stickies like Rutherglen Muscat. Of course, Port is another excellent option.
As an East Midlands man I’m duty-bound to describe Roquefort as the world’s second most eminent blue cheese. Saltier and moister than Stilton, it is an unpasteurised sheeps milk cheese from the south of France. AOC rules state that can only be aged in the caves of Mount Combalou, where the blue-green Penicillium roquefortii mould that makes this cheese so famous occurs naturally (although nowadays is usually introduced in a more controlled way during moulding).
The farmhouse example the team tasted is sublime, as is the dessert wine – Saussignac 2005 from Clos d’Yvigne in Bergerac (£19.99, 50cl). Regular Majestic customers may be familar with the Clos d’Yvigne wines made by ex-pat winemaker and author Patricia Atkinson, but this luscious dessert wine is only available in limited quantities so you’ll need to check stocks in your local store. It’s somewhat Sauternes-like, being made from Semillon and Muscadelle, but is more tropical and exotic. It has superb concentration but with plenty of freshening acidity to cope with the richness of the cheese.
Brie de Meaux with Chablis
This is the combination that is perhaps most surprising; I guess most people would traditionally match creamy cheeses with red wine. As the team discovered, that creaminess can dull the fruit of red wines and leave just the bitterness of the wines tannins to come through on the palate. They opted instead for an elegant white with good acidity, but still with the richness to stand up to all that gooey loveliness.
Brie is probably France’s most famous cheese, and Brie de Meaux is an appellation for the cheeses produced in the heartland of the region centered on the town of the same name. Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, it is instantly recognisable with its fluffy white rind and creamy yellow interiour. To my mind it is at its best when mature, when it softens to a luscious gloop and takes on savoury bacon notes.
The team opted for Chablis La Maladière 2008 from William Fèvre (£13.99 or buy 2 save £4 = £11.99), a long-standing Majestic favourite that’s a cut above entry-level Chablis and worth every penny. A close runner-up with the brie was a richer Chardonnay from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2008 (£11.24 or buy 2 save 20% = £8.99) – my guess is that if the brie had been a touch riper this may have won the day.
Montgomery Cheddar with Claret
The only cheese that seemed to work well with reds, this cheddar’s crumbly hardness and richness of flavour combined well with a Médoc with it’s elegant fruit and tannins. The team draw attention to the effect of proteins on tannin – a similar effect you’ll find when you drink red wine with red meat.
Really good cheddar is so much better than wet, soapy supermarket cheese it’s a revelation; personally I’ve found none better than Montgomery, made from milk from the farm’s 140 Fresian cows not far from Yeovil in Somerset. This is a cloth-bound, unpasteurised cheddar that is aged for up to 18 months – when really mature the texture becomes almost parmesan-like, but always balances lovely creaminess with a pleasant lactic acidity and savoury notes.
The team favoured Château Lachesnaye 2004, a cru bourgeois Haut-Médoc (£9.99); it’s a delicious, medium-bodied claret from an underrated vintage that is drinking very nicely now. They were also pretty impressed by a more powerful red – Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Mendoza, Argentina (£11.99) – but felt the claret edged it.
Do you have any particular food and wine matching combinations you’d like us to investigate? It’s a difficult task but someone has to do it! Drop us an email or comment below.