Luxe Cheese

Charles de Gaulle once uttered, “How can one conceive a one-party system in a country that has over 200 cheeses?” I uttered something like “Where do I begin?” when I first began pairing wine and cheese. There is an ever-growing number of individual cheeses from all over the world and even more wines as possible partners. What I’ve learned in my experience of pairing wine and cheese is that there are very few generalities. There are no “red with meat” and “white with fish” adages. Yes, there are classics – Port with Stilton, or Sancerre with Chevre – but beyond that, what you taste and enjoy becomes more important than any rule. And for me, it is even more fun when there are no rules.

So this is no wine and cheese primer. There are books for that. This is for individualistic cheese and wine lovers who aren’t afraid to chance greatness and scoff in the face of tradition.

Let’s begin with a classic French soft triple cream cheese, l’Explorateur from Fromagerie du Petit Morin, 100 percent cow’s milk that is oh, so creamy with a balancing tanginess that leads on to a buttery, long and lightly earthy aftertaste. Some experts call for red Bordeaux. But I think this wine completely trounces the nuances of such a smooth and creamy cheese. I love this cheese with a dry to off-dry Riesling from Alsace, which brings out the fruitiness of the wine. The lovely acidity of Riesling also cleanses the fattiness from the palate. A 2006 Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvee Theo ($39) would be perfect.

The next super-creamy soft cheese comes from King Island Diary on the island of the same name found between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Its Seal Bay Triple Cream is just as creamy, but is even more complex with notes of nuts, fresh mushrooms and earth. It is lightly salty with a lovely buttery texture. A red wine is hard to do with this cheese, especially big reds. Instead I go for a White Burgundy that shows plenty of depth and complements the earthiness in the cheese. A 2006 Jean-Marc Roulot Meursault Les Tessons ($139) would be absolutely decadent and a dead-on match.

A decadent food item unto itself is the Boschetto alla Tartufo from Italy, a semi-hard cheese made from a blend of sheep and cow milk and (drum roll, please) black truffles. It is lightly crumbly with just a hint of gaminess and light tanginess. The truffles lift all the aromatics, making it intense and fantastico! Originally I thought of well-aged Barolo, but that was too easy. How about Right Bank Bordeaux? Pomerol, no … St. Emilion, yes! In fact, I had a 1982 Chateau Cheval Blanc ($1,200) recently that exhibited similar truffle aromas and some super-velvety tannin that would make a heavenly pair.

Staying local, I highly recommend the Hawaii Island Goat Dairy Big Island Feta. This crumbly, lightly salty and tangy cheese is unbelievably light and pure without being gamey at all. Sauvignon Blanc is a natural and seamless pair, but another pairing even more fun is dry rose: 2007 Joguet Chinon Rose ($19) has plenty of acidity and citrus flavors to tame the tang of this feta – not to mention it is killer with a salad. Actually, they both are.

Spain is “hot” right now when it comes to food and wine, so I chose the Garrotxa semi-hard goat’s milk cheese from Catalonia. It, too, is light and tangy, actually lighter than I expected and quite pure, with a clarity and subtlety I rarely find in goat milk cheeses. What really caught my palate as well was the lack of gaminess. Because of this I went with a white wine – Spanish, of course. The 2006 Pazo Barrantes Albariño ($22) is a super-refreshing and gulpable white with some floral and citrus notes that counter any gaminess and give a mineral edge that only adds to the complexity of the pair.

A new cheese to my palate is Le Marechal from Switzerland, a semi-hard cheese made from raw milk and aged for five months. It also is rubbed with Herbes de Provence for two of those months, giving it an added twist. It is lifted and airy, but intense. It has a porcini mushroom-like finish as well as nuttiness. The aftertaste is amazing and penetrating. For me, this earthiness and texture calls for aged Pinot Noir, preferably aged Red Burgundy. 1995 Meo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru ($350) is a magnificent wine that matches the earthiness while accentuating the fruit. This is a pair not to be missed.

The last semi-hard cheese of the day is Mimolette made in Lille, France, of 100 percent cow’s milk. It has a distinct orange color similar to cantaloupe. It is quite dry and reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano, but marginally softer and meatier, not as salty but even nuttier. This is a dense cheese that requires richness in a wine. An intense red wine is necessary. I first leaned toward Red Bordeaux, but found that a more-refined red would work even better. The 2001 Camigliano “Gualto” Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ($99) is a wonderfully complex wine with plenty of meaty richness and structure. Together their intensities battle but end in a dance of melding flavors.

Now, for you blue-veined cheese enthusiasts, I uncovered two new exceptional finds. First, from Oregon, comes the Rogue Creamery Crater Lake Blue. This cheese is inoculated with a blend of molds from around the world to give it its complexity. It is more creamy than crumbly with a peak of tanginess and good saltiness. It is exceedingly intense and has a huge aftertaste that seems to build with each bite. Robust and round, I know it requires the same in its wine pair. Port is a good pair, but with so much alcohol (20 percent) it is hard to drink much. Thus Syrah and even Shiraz would sing great melodies with this cheese. 2004 Rusden “Black Guts” Shiraz ($89) from Barossa has more than enough sweet fruit intensity and viscosity to put this baby blue to bed.

The next one comes again from King Island Dairy, the Roaring 40s Blue. Named after the roaring winds that sweep through 40 degrees south longitude, it is a very creamy blue with a surprisingly light and clean “blueness.” It is surprisingly light without being light-flavored. Its creaminess harkens of Cambozola, but just a bit saltier. Here I would go for a big Cabernet Sauvignon, and not necessarily from Bordeaux. Because of its sweeter fruit profile (more port-like) and thicker richness, a knockout wine such as the 2004 Bond Pluribus ($279) would be the perfect choice.

Lastly, a “different” cheese – White Stilton with Mango and Ginger – graced my palate. White Stilton is “non-inoculated,” so it has none of the blue veins to which Stilton fans are accustomed, but is mixed with chopped dried mango and ginger. It turns out to be an almost sweet and fruity cheese – a true cheese for dessert and must be paired with a sweet wine. For me, the perfect match would be a Sauternes like 2003 Chateau Climens ($115/750ml), which already has notes of candied mango and vanilla that fit together with this cheese hand in glove.

Wine and cheese pairing is always a fun and humbling experience. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. But the fun comes when you find your own pairings you would never have found in the textbooks. Don’t use rules, use your palate. It’s much more fun!

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.

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