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Wines and cheese? Do they work together? 

Randolph Hodgson and Jancis Robinson

This was an interesting event. Organized by Bronwen Bromberger and Francis Percival (cheese expert and chef, respectively) and held in the front room of a terraced house in Bethnal Green, it involved matching a range of cheeses and wines together under semi-controlled conditions. Not only this, but Bronwen and Francis had taken a single wine and a single cheese, and doctored them, thus producing a large combination of pairings to help try to tease out what makes some matches work and others fail. I was one of the four tasters, and was flattered to be in such illustrious company: the two cheese experts were Randolph Hodgson and William Oglethorpe of Neal’s Yard Dairy, and the two wine experts were Jancis Robinson and myself.

For a well written, insightful account of the evening, see Jancis’ report (here on her website or here from the Financial Times). Here, I’ll share some of my impressions in a much less polished form.

I quizzed Randolph about cheese: after all, as the founder of Neal's Yard he's in large part responsible for the revival in serious cheese in the UK. We discussed the issue of typicity, concluding that cheese is similar to wine in this respect. I asked him about the language that is used to describe cheese, and whether it was similar to the use of language for describing wine. ‘When I started, cheese graders talked about a level of acid, or a “flavour”, which was a derogatory term’, explained Randolph. ‘It was a blank slate in terms of cheese’. So how does he taste cheese? ‘I’m looking at getting an idea of how it will keep’, he says, ‘trying to spot a flavour you knew went wrong before. It’s very personalized’. Interestingly, with Neal's Yard he has tried to steer clear of describing cheese to consumers, in the way that wine merchants give descriptive tasting notes on wines. After all, they are able to offer tastes to customers in the way that wine shops aren’t. William Oglethorp recalls when he worked in a cheese shop in Paris and wasn’t able to offer tastes, but had to learn descriptors.  

William, Bronwen, Randolph and Jancis

The tasting consisted of two segments. The first was matching a doctored wine with a doctored cheese. This was a goats milk cheese from Ireland, and it was chosen because this batch arrived undersalted by a factor of 10, which makes playing with the saltiness variable possible. However, the salt level also affects how the microorganisms grow (salt controls the bacterial development of the starter), and so changing saltiness will also change other variables in the cheese. Still, for the purposes of this tasting, we’re close enough for rock and roll. 

Wine: Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Doctored with:

  • 50 g/l sugar

  • 150 g/l sugar

  • Added oak essence

  • Added glycerin

  • Added tannin

Cheese: St Tola, Inagh Farmhouse Cheese, Ireland (unpasteurized goat’s milk, vegetable rennet)

  • Defectively undersalted

  • Normal salt

  • High salt

  • With added MSG

Here are my notes on the various combinations:

  • Normal salt: thee two sweetest versions of the wine work best, and I’d probably opt for the middle one if pushed.

  • Low salt: the cheese tastes nasty – much too fatty texture. It doesn’t work well with the sweetest or driest, and if I’m pushed I’d have to go with the middle one, but it isn’t great.

  • High salt: again, an upleasant cheese, but it probably works best with the driest wine.

  • MSG: this gives a cheese with a sweet fudgey/savoury character. Works well with the dry wine and perhaps also the medium sweet. It’s an OK combination with the oaked wine, too.

I found this bit of the tasting quite tough: generally, I don’t want to drink nasty wines and I don’t want to eat nasty cheeses. I found the doctored samples of both quite unpleasant. With both gourmet wines and cheeses we are in the business of fine discrimination of quality, and these doctored samples didn’t cut it. More useful for me was the matching of good wines with some lovely Neal's Yard cheeses.

Frances, William and Bronwen

Wines (and other alcoholic drinks)

  • Stolichnaya Vodka, Russia (at 10%)

  • Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Adelaide Hills, Australia  

  • Aubert The Quarry Chardonnay 2004 Sonoma Coast, California
    Big in every respect, with lots of alcohol and dense, rich fruit and oak

  • Marcel Deiss Gewürztraminer St Hippolyte 2002 Alsace, France  
    A wonderfully rich-textured expressive, off-dry Gewurz

  • Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo Sake, Nigata Prefecture, Japan

  • Gospel Green Cyder 2004, Sussex
    Almost Champagne like: a vintage-dated elegant sparkling cider

  • Château Tirecul La Gravière Cuvée Madame 1999 Monbazillac, France  
    Brilliant botrytised sweet wine of real class and character

  • Turley Juvenile Zinfandel 2003 California  
    A big, fruity, dense Zinfandel with plenty of everything

  • Unison Syrah 2004 Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
    Full flavoured, fruity and quite rich, with some tannic structure

Cheeses (with notes about flavour and wine pairings)

  • Parroche, Neal’s Yard Creamery, Herefordshire (unpasteurized goat’s cheese, animal rennet)  
    Creamy, rich and soft textured with a bitter tang on the finish. Best with the Sauvignon Blanc or the Aubert Chardonnay?

  • Cotherstone, Durham (pasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet)
    Nice mild style with good texture and a bit of saltiness. A light style. Perhaps the Sauvignon is best here, again?

  • Tunworth, Hampshire (unpasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet)
    A creamy, buttery soft cheese with a complex rind and a bit of a tang. Dry wines don’t really work with this. But maybe the Turley Zin or Aubert just about pull it off? Not a dream match by any means though.

  • Milleen’s, County Cork, Ireland (pasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet)
    Funky dairy flavours: soft and complex. There’s a slightly stinky element here. Best matches are the Sake and Gewürztraminer.

  • Gubbeen, County Cork, Ireland (pasteurized cow’s milk, vegetable rennet)
    Soft, nice, nutty, rounded and creamy. Didn’t come up with a match here, or else I did but didn’t write it down.

  • Montgomery’s Cheddar, North Cadbury, Somerset (unpasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet)
    Two different versions of this fantastic cheese.
    6/12/2004 starter PM49: Rounded, spicy and tangy with nice saltiness  
    22/3/2005 starter FD: Softer and rounder with nice fatness  
    For these, the Gewürztraminer worked best, and the Sake wasn’t bad.

  • Colston Bassett Stilton, Nottinghamshire (pasteurized cow’s milk, animal rennet)
    Lovely tangy cheese: complex, salty and spicy. Works best with the Monbazillac and the Gewurztraminer.

Tentative conclusions  
I love cheese. I love wine. But the two don’t tend to make the best pairing – certainly not if you are being terribly analytical about it, as we were on this occasion. Having said this, I enjoy eating cheese and drinking wine with it, so make of that what you will. Generally, the rule of thumb is white wines with softer cheeses, and if you must drink reds with cheese, then hard cheeses are likely to be a more suitable match.

Tasted 10/06
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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