Two of my favourite things are wine, obviously, and cheese so I love explaining how to get the ultimate enjoyment out of both by simply finding the right pairing. It often alters people's perceptions the way they consider matching the two together.
There is a general assumption that cheese should be enjoyed with red wine but in fact white wine goes just as well, if not better in some cases. Think about the areas in the Old World where white wines are produced and you will often find cheese being made there too. It is no coincidence then that the cheese and wine from a specific region will pair together; if it grows with it, it goes with it!
If you visit Sancerre in the Loire Valley in France you will probably notice a lot of goats in the area. If you arrive in the height of summer you may even notice the area smells of goat too. But once you are happily seated in the village square with a chilled glass of Sancerre and some local bread and goat’s cheese you suddenly don’t really notice the smell anymore, it just all works together. The grape variety used to make Sancerre and its neighbour Pouilly Fumé (Quincy, Menetou Salon and Reuilly are others nearby) is Sauvignon Blanc so if you have a New World Sauvignon Blanc you can trust that it will go with goat’s cheese. A Sauvignon grown in the New World will have stronger, more intense flavour that one from the Old World thanks to the increased amount of sunshine the grapes receive so plump for a richer fuller flavoured goat’s cheese too; something really rindy and piquant. The softer, often more elegant Old World Sauvignons would be better with a creamier, less pungent Chevre for example.
You often find white wines that have a hint of sweetness, something like a Pinot Gris from Alsace or Falanghina from Italy, that are technically dry but have rich fruit characters that almost tricks the brain into thinking they are sweet. Likewise they can often be a bit spicy, nutty and unctuous so a cheese with similar qualities will work brilliantly. The cheese required to prove this little point is Manchego, a hard ewe’s cheese from La Mancha in Spain. It has a sweet yet salty twang, a bitterness and richness, a nutty, aromatic note that brings out the flavours in the wine. Often people try the wine and think, ‘hmm, it’s ok’, then after tasting the cheese and the wine again are amazed at how much the flavours change.
Likewise something like a rich mature Cheddar can affect the flavour of oakey wines that many people (think they) don’t like. Good examples are Chardonnays, Viogniers and Semillons that have been fermented and/or matured in oak barrels. They often have a toasty, smoky flavour and rich creamy, buttery, caramel texture than many find off-putting. Taste some mature cheddar in between sips (the stronger the better) and wonder at how much of a difference it makes. The sharpness of both cheese and wine is reduced, the textures meld together as one delicious creamy smooth mouthful and the fruit becomes more evident as the ‘oakiness’ is balanced thanks to the full flavour of the cheese. Try it, you might be surprised!
I always show a blue cheese at a cheese and wine tasting and yes, it does work brilliantly with massive chewy reds, think Port and Stilton, but white wine works too, especially if it is a sweet one. The best sweet wines should be sticky and of course sweet with notes of marmalade, dried apricot and lemon peel but they should also have a clean, fresh finish so the wine doesn't feel cloying. In the world of food and wine matching we usually suggest matching the flavours and textures of the wine to the food but here is one example where the opposite is true. Blue cheese is salty with a sharp piquant acidity, dessert wine is sweet with a sharp, acidic finish. The acidities balance each other out and the salt and sweet flavours actually work together and end up doing a little jig on your tongue. Here opposites attract and it really is the most divine combination.
I once hosted an event where one man in particular claimed to not like any white wine but he persevered and dutifully tasted all the wines with the cheeses and was shocked by the results. With each initial sip of wine he didn't like any of them but then after eating the respective cheese and tasting the wine again couldn't believe the difference. How one element can utterly affect the flavour of another is astounding and certainly changed this chap’s mind. We did try red wine with the cheeses but the combinations that stood out were the whites with cheese, the reds just seem ‘ok’ in comparison.
So why not try it? Get some friends round, everybody bring a bottle of white and a lump of cheese and see what works for you. Sounds like a perfect night in to me!