K&L Personal Sommelier Online: September 2010
"Un dessert sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil."
(A dessert without cheese is like a one-eyed beauty.)
—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
It is not just a French thing, or even an elite foodie thing. From San Francisco to Syracuse, artisan cheese, in all its pungent glory, is here. And whether you’re new to the cheese world, or a veteran fromage fanatic, a basic understanding of wine and cheese pairing is essential for any wine lover to possess.
A great place to start your wine and cheese odyssey is at the end. While I am happy to eat cheese any time, I can’t help but agree with the French that the optimum cheese moment is before or in place of dessert, when the stomach is subdued and the palate properly prepped for the challenge.
If you have a special bottle of dessert wine in mind, I suggest selecting one equally special cheese that will really make the wine sing. The last thing you want is for that carefully aged bottle to be overshadowed by a mismatched cheese. Consider palate weight, texture, structure and any distinctive flavor or aroma characteristics of the wine. Then select a cheese that can play a supporting role—one that is of similar weight and body, and that accentuates the unique flavors of the wine. Salty, pungent bleu cheeses, for example, are ideal with with rich, tannic dessert wines like vintage Ports. The saltiness of the cheese intensifies the sweetness and spice in the wine, playing down bitter flavors and subduing alcohol. This kind of robust cheese is richly textured and coats the mouth, thus softening the perception of tannins and drawing the the fruit flavors forward.
When serving a variety of cheeses, always choose the cheeses first. A good cheese board is balanced, with cheeses of varying weights, ages and textures. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the many wonderful cheese options out there, so don't be afraid to ask your cheesemonger for guidance. That's what they're there for!
For optimum palate pleasure, aim to limit the offering to between three and five cheeses, and ideally one type of wine. When selecting the wine, you can quickly narrow down your choices if you stick with those stickies that will pair with most pungent cheese on the board. While strong cheeses can easily dominate a light wine, fuller-bodied wines will still complement milder cheeses.
Here is some cheese (and wine) for thought:
Rich, earthy cheeses
2008 Clos Uroulat Jurançon Moelleux (375ml $15.99) Jurançon is a white wine-producing AOC in the foothills of the Pyrenees that became famous for its moelleux (sweet) wines after one was used in the baptism of the infant Henry IX in 1553. Modern-day Jurançon producer Charles Hours makes his classic estate Moelleux from Petite Manseng harvested from the steep slopes of Clos Uroulat. This golden-colored, elegantly sweet wine has a rich, exotic nose, showing aromas of tropical fruit and honeysuckle. The palate reveals sweet pineapple with notes of cinnamon and an underlying nuttiness. Vibrant acidity keeps the impression fresh and not cloying. This wine pairs well with rich, salty, earthy cheeses like Tomme de chèvre au Jurançon or Roquefort, where the sweetness and acidity of the wine can play with the savory and tangy qualities of the cheese while tantalizing the palate with contrasting flavors.
Blue-veined, Salty Cheeses
2004 Cave de Rasteau Vin Doux Naturel (500ml $17.99) Vin Doux Naturel are lightly fortified sweet wines produced in the South of France, where the wines are made from overripe grapes with naturally high sugar levels. To stop fermentation, a small dose of neutral spirit is added to the wine, yielding an alcohol level that is slightly higher than table wine but lower than many other fortified wines. This VDN from the Cave de Rasteau cooperative is a handy secret wine weapon, especially if you are looking for something with flavors similar to Port but without its heaviness and alcohol. Served slightly chilled, the complex stewed plum, cherry, fig and walnut oil aromas and flavors of this VDN makes it simply stunning with Stilton.
Mixed Assortment of Cheeses
1998 Domaine Fontanel Rivesaltes “Ambré” (24.99) The sweet wines of Rivesaltes are some of the best kept secrets in the world of aged sweet wine. Domaine Fontanel’s 1998 Ambré is made from 100% Grenache Blanc harvested from 60-year-old vines, and it has a complex flavor profile that stretches from dried fruits (raisin, date) to maple and hazelnut, with a little earthy, rancio character. Thanks to delicately balanced acidity, this wine is intense but not overpowering. I’ve experimented with pairing it with a variety of cheeses—creamy Camembert, nutty Tallegio, savory Mimolette—and have been pleased to discover that this Rivesaltes is not only affordable enough purchase more than one bottle, but it is incredibly cheese-friendly.
Are you ready for cheese to happen to you?
Just Desserts! Design Your Own Wine Club. Whether you are interested in trying more dessert-style wines to pair with cheese or are simply looking to experiment with different food and wine pairings at home, you can create your own customized wine club through the K&L Personal Sommelier Service. You set the number of bottles, the duration of the subscription and the budget. Focus on specific regions and styles or leave it open to be surprised. Email Sommelier@KLWines.com for more information or visit KLWines.com to get started today!