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Sommelier Essentials: Pairing Wine With Cheese

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30/10/2019 Cheese is thought of as a classic match for wine - but which combinations shine brightest? Cheese expert Ned Palmer explains all.

“When you’re thinking about pairing, you think about the flavor and texture of the cheese, and how it’ll develop. It’s exploration”

Cheese is an integral part of European cuisine. There are hundreds produced all over Europe, from Stilton in the English Midlands to Pecorino Romano in the region surrounding the Italian capital and Sardinia, and plenty more around the world that have been inspired by this long-standing culture of cheesemaking. It’s in the soil. “How can anyone govern a country that has 246 different types of cheese?” Charles De Gaulle apparently once said of France, which lies at the heart of European cheese production. 

Well, imagine if you had to pair them all with wine (or beer, or cider), too. One man who knows better than most how to go about that is cheesemonger Ned Palmer, whose book - ‘A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles’ - has recently been published in the UK. He has an extraordinary knowledge of cheese that he often deploys at pairing events. It’s a task he attacks with relish.

“When I'm thinking, "Okay, what wine am I going to pair this cheese with?" I've got to really think about the flavor of the cheese, texture of the cheese,” he says. “I call it narrative structure of flavor: it’s not just the flavor of the cheese, but how that's going to develop, what's in the beginning, in the middle, and the finish of the flavor, and how that's going to affect the pairing. So, by thinking about pairing, I'm really thinking about the cheese.”

This is crucial knowledge for sommeliers - the cheese course is often the last thing guests will experience in a restaurant, and a good match will send them away happy. Not that it’s always easy.

“Once I did a pairing with a wine distributor, and I thought we'd come out of this knowing exactly what family of wines to pair with what family of cheeses,” says Palmer. “But we found that, say, with five Pinots, each of them went with a different cheese, and you couldn't really just say, "This style of goats cheese for the Pinot." So it was kind of frustrating but, in other ways, super exciting that you realize that, "Gosh, even for one given style of wine or cheese, there might not be fixed rules."

Here are five of his favourite cheese and wine pairings:

1. Washed-rind cheeses with Burgundy

“I think the most challenging family of cheeses would be washed-rinds like Epoisses. They're difficult because it is so authoritative and so individual, those flavors are just all unique. It's a cheese that takes a red wine very nicely, and I struggle to find red matches, so one of my favorite pairings would be a washed-rind with a burgundy, but a burgundy that has that farm-yardiness ... you know when you open it and it's got that slight stinkiness? A little bit of farmyard, perhaps a bit of sulfur, and some other stuff; the leather and the earth, which are close to the earthy, smoky notes of the washed rind. It’s very complementary.”

2. Alpine hard cheese with Altesse

“This is a terroir match. I had this up in the Alps: Abondance, which is in that Alpine family, so much like Gruyere or Comte, with Altesse. I loved it. The wine was off-dry, a little bit of sweetness, which contrasts with the savory thing. There’s some backbone in it, a little bit of acidity so it's not flabby. Just a lovely wine. And the other principle for me that is an absolute across the board, is matching in intensity. So, you don't have an Australian Shiraz with a really delicate fresh young goats cheese sort of thing, because it would wipe it out. So they had that perfect balance - but also I believe that, over the thousands of years of making wine and making cheese in the same place, people ended up making stuff that went well together.”

3. Blue cheese with dessert wine 

“Stilton and port is a very famous match, and I don't agree with it. I think the reason for it is that both products became trendy in the 18th century at the same time. I would have Stilton and dessert wine, so that would be my wine pairing - or, if you prefer beer, Porter. But There's a really lovely Moscatel from Portugal, which is actually fortified rather than botrytized: I like that.”

4. Cheddar with Riesling

“If I was doing terroir matching, it would be cheddar with Somerset Cider, but Riesling works really well. It should be off-dry, not too acidic - a later-bottled Riesling is what I would go for. Not too acidic because I think acidity is usually horrible, and cheddar's quite acidic. And yet a nice, well made, old world Riesling won't be too intense for your good cheddar. There's a nice balance in that pairing.”

5. Young, fresh goat’s cheese with sparkling red wine

“This contradicts what I said before; it’s a massive Australian wine with a very delicate, young, fresh cheese. There’s a wine called The Full Fifteen and it's an Australian sparkling Shiraz. And so, it's got two factors for me: the wine is so fruity and massive, and has all kinds of lovely dark fruits, and then you have this young fresh goats’ cheese, which is really acidic and fresh, so the acidity brings out all the fruit in the wine, and cuts through it in a way, so the wine isn't dominating the cheese. Also, the fizziness is great; that mouthfeel really helps.”

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