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When Wine Meets Cheese

How to find a match made in heaven

The downside of writing about food and wine for a living is that everyone expects you to be an expert on everything. For a recent party, I was careful to select wines and cheeses I thought would go well together. I love Alsatian whites, so I chose a deliciously fragrant Hugel gewürztraminer to accompany one of my favorite California cheeses, a pungent triple cream called Red Hawk, from Marin County’s Cowgirl Creamery. Together, they are surprisingly delicious: the wine tames the stinkiness of the cheese, and the cheese enhances, but doesn’t overpower, the wine.

I also had on hand a delicate French goat’s milk cheese called Bonde de Gatine. Lacking another wine for it, I crossed my fingers the gewürztraminer would do. It didn’t. When the cheese and the wine met, the delicious flavors of both simply vanished. My friends shot me accusing glances, no doubt wondering how I got my job.

Determined not to err again, I turned to two distinguished cheese experts for help: Louis Risoli, the fromagier at Boston’s L’Espalier, and Max McCalman, the dean of curriculum at New York’s Artisanal Cheese Center. The one rule they both agreed on is that there are no rules, but they did offer some guidelines.

First, white wines and sweet wines tend to work better with cheese than those big, bold reds, which can overwhelm a cheese’s subtle flavors. Second, wines and cheeses from the same region—cultivated in similar climate, soil, and water—tend to be compatible. Following these two guidelines, I paired a hard apple cider from Normandy with a Pave D’Auge, a cousin of Camembert, and an unctuous Munster with Alsatian gewürztraminers. Both combinations were delicious.

For more creative pairings, my experts tell me, analyze the cheese. Think about its aroma, balance of sweet and salty flavors, acidity, texture, and umami, that savory, meaty taste. The best pairings, Risoli says, offer a contrast or balance of flavors. If, for example, you’re looking to match a nutty Parmesan, choose a round, fruity red like a Barolo or even an off-dry sparkling wine. And if you’re lucky enough to find Flixer, a rare alpine sheep’s milk cheese with a delicate chestnut flavor and creamy finish, you’ll definitely want a white with a little body—a rich Sicilian chardonnay or a French sauvignon blanc such as Pouilly-Fumé or Sancerre.

To throw your own wine and cheese tasting, assemble a range of sparkling, white, and red wines along with cheeses made from cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk. Taste the wine first, then the cheese. This will give you a sense of their individual flavors and textures. (If you do it the other way around, the cheese often overpowers the wine.) Next, taste both together: smush a thin piece of cheese against the back of your front teeth, then sip the wine. If the pairing works, the flavor of both the wine and the cheese will be enhanced.

McCalman recommends rating each pair on a five-point scale: +2 for a match made in heaven; +1 if either the wine or the cheese gets a boost; 0 means you’d eat it again—if you were hungry; -1 if the flavor of either the wine or the cheese is marred; and -2 if the chemical reaction or clash of flavors undermines both the wine and cheese.

The fabulous combinations—a milky Durrus and a crisp Domaine Weinbach riesling, say, or the Spanish sheep’s milk known as Torta del Casar and a spicy shiraz—are as rare as the truly terrible, and often the result of much trial and error. But, of course, the pursuit is half the fun.

“Connoisseur” features the sundry expertise of our readers.

JANE BLACK, J95, swore she’d never endure another New England winter after she graduated. But a decade later, the chance to eat her way through the city lured her back. As Boston Magazine’s food editor, Black reports on restaurant and food trends and eats out at least four times a week. She also writes for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Food & Wine, and other publications.
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