Sunday, October 17, 2010

TNV’s Guide to Wine & Cheese – Part I (Soft Cheese)

(Note: This series goes out to Dr. Randa. Here’s your daggone wine & cheese column…)


Wine and cheese are inextricably linked. Both are the delicious products of well-managed fermentation. Both can be found at almost any gathering where noshables are present. And there are darned near endless varieties of each.

(The two are also at the core of one of my favorite sports quotes of all time. The immortal Sam Cassell called the assembled at UNC-CH’s Dean Dome a “cheese and wine crowd” during his Florida State days. It’s an apt descriptor of the usual level of crowd noise there.)

An important note of irony – as much as we think of wine and cheese going hand in hand, it’s exceedingly difficult to “perfectly” pair wine and cheese. There’s so much variation in individual wines and cheeses that it’s nearly impossible to say with confidence, “This type of wine always works with this type of cheese.” This difficulty gets compounded when you have multiple cheeses with a wine. Still, in the name of science, let’s press on.

There’s a basic process in most cheese production. Milk is allowed to ferment (sour) at room temperature. Certain kinds of mold and bacteria can be added during the fermenting process to impart more distinct flavors. The milk then separates into solid curds and liquid whey. The whey is drained off, the curds are pressed and often salted, and there you have it -- cheese. (Specifically, at this point, it’s cottage cheese – which was Little Miss Muffett’s “Curds and Whey.”)

For firmer cheeses, an enzyme called rennet is added to the fermenting milk. This accelerates the curd separation process. The curds are then often cut into small cubes and pressed into balls or logs. Soft cheeses stop here. Harder cheeses are pressed into molds and squeezed tightly, forcing out more of the whey and creating a firmer, drier product. This, in turn, allows the cheese to cure for a longer period of time. The harder the block, the longer a cheese can age.

Cheese can be classified in any number of ways – by location (much as many wines are); by texture; by flavor; by price; and so on. For our purposes, I’m going to use a three part classification: soft cheese, hard cheese, and stinky cheese. I’ll pick some cheeses for each category that you should be able to find without too much difficulty, along with what is normally considered the “classic wine pairing” for each. Just for fun, we’ll try each cheese and each wine together. Let’s start with soft cheeses. We chose these three:

  • Fresh mozzarella (pairing: Chianti)
  • Brie (pairing: extra dry sparkling wine)
  • Chevre (pairing: Sancerre)

For information’s sake, Sancerre is a delicious, minerally sauvignon blanc from the Loire in France. It’s a little on the pricey side, but I was in the mood to splurge for this experiment. You could substitute a less expensive French sauvignon if you wanted. Extra dry sparkling wine usually works better than brut in my experience. The Chianti should be young. Aged Chianti will lose its complexity. How did things work out?

Fresh Mozzarella – While Mozzarella can be made from cow milk, it’s traditionally made from the milk of the domesticated water buffalo. Until I met the SPinC, I thought you only found mozzarella in baked pastas and on pizzas. I was used to seeing it shredded, imprisoned in a plastic bag instead of fresh, capable of being eaten alone. It’s a “clean” tasting cheese – which is to say that it doesn’t have much of a flavor in and of itself other than “milky and slightly granular.” With the Chianti alongside, it was OK. The cheese calmed the acidity of the wine a bit. It was decent but lacked something, so we ended up making little sandwiches with bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, some fresh basil, and hard sausage. (Basically, we used all the things Chianti tastes good with.) It didn’t disappoint. With the sparkling wine, the yeasty flavor of the sparkler came out, but it wasn’t all that interesting. The Sancerre showed as far too acidic. There wasn’t enough flavor in the cheese to balance the wine and the gentle flavor of the wine got lost. Recommendation: mozzarella is a much stronger complimentary player. Consider serving it Caprese salad-style – with basil, tomatoes, and really good balsamic vinegar – instead of just by itself. Stick with Italian reds if you want to pair it.

Brie – The best known soft “party platter” cheese. You’ll usually see this cow’s milk cheese with a white rind, which is the product of the addition of rennet to the curd. The rind is edible if you’re so inclined. The cheese has a lasting, creamy, buttery flavor with a little bit of funk to it. Sparkling wine is the recommended pairing. The bubbles cut the fat & funk and mellow the flavor of the cheese. It’s pleasant. The Sancerre makes the cheese more funky, and the complexity of the wine is completely lost. The Chianti was a disaster. The chalkiness and acidity of the Chianti was as complementary towards the cheese as your average Kentucky basketball fan is towards Christian Laettner. Recommendation: like you need another excuse to bust out a bottle of bubbly.

I made an initial bobble with the brie. I initially bought a chunk of “Brie de Meaux,” an aged brie. When brie is aged, it gets very strong flavors – including ammonia (which is created in the fermentation process.) It’s supposed to be good soaked in café au lait, but I’m not that brave. It was disastrous with all the wines. Stick with the cheaper brie. Brie de Meaux…Neaux.

Chevre – Chevre is French for “goat.” Goat cheese has a tarter flavor than most cow’s milk cheeses because of the makeup of the milk itself (which is actually close to human milk). It often reminds me of buttercream frosting in consistency. There’s a little funkiness to it, but it’s largely a smooth, creamy experience. Sancerre is the pairing here for good reason. There’s something about the makeup of the two together. Fruit, creaminess, tartness, minerality – all balanced and working together as a heavenly, fluidly balanced combination. While there may be no “perfect” pairings, this is close. The sparkling wine was interesting. The thick buttery consistency initially gets stripped away by the bubbles and a blast of minerality & yeast, leaving sweetness and cream behind. An interesting, lively combination. As for the Chianti, my first comment was, “That’s really kinda nice!” An acidic vs. buttery contrast, but still pretty decadent. Recommendation: If you’re doing a soft cheese on a platter and you don’t know what kinds of wine you’ll have, you can’t go wrong with chevre. Easily the most interesting, wine friendly cheese that we had.

Next up – hard cheeses.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

For Mooch.

pam and pooches 

“Do you like dogs?”

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I had been dating for a few weeks when she invited me to swing by her place for some food and a glass or three of wine. My family had had dogs while I was growing up, although my sister was much more interested in them. I like pooches, though, and since I had some obvious ulterior motives, I answered in the affirmative. She continued:

“Well, I’ve got two of them, and they’re pretty big.”

Yeah, yeah – so what? Big dogs? I can handle big dogs. I came to the front door, knocked, and heard them bark. The Sweet Partner opened the door and my life changed forever. Before I could take a step, I was nearly bowled over by 70 pounds of fast moving black fur. Paws to chest, face to face, and major greeting kisses. A relationship was born. The SPinC eventually warmed up to me, too…

(Side note: I was also bowled over by Jessie Red, who had no less of an impact…)

The SPinC got Mooch from the county animal shelter when he was a few months old. He’d been turned in twice, so finding my sweetie probably saved Mooch from an early dirt nap. He was a handful -- willful, listened when he felt like it, and always on the prowl for some kind of mischief. (As the SPinC said recently, “A quarter of the words I said to him were “NO, MOOCH!”) He was an unrepentantly bad boy who had a sense of duty and honor that would draw salutes from many Marines. He saw his life’s purpose in perimeter patrol wherever he found himself, protecting all in his sight from the hellborn threat of cats and squirrels.

Mooch didn’t look like any other dog I’d seen. He was a strikingly handsome mutt – the neighborhood bitches couldn’t get enough of him. Some posited that he might have had some golden retriever blood, but we didn’t buy that. Retrieving wasn’t his thing. But if a cat found its way into the yard? Mayhem. Mooch knew trigonometry. When he chased a cat, he’d run them towards the highest fence in the backyard. The critter would invariably try to jump the fence and end up sliding back down. Mooch was ready. When the cat hit the fence, rather than follow, he immediately calculated the precise end of the cat’s unfortunate parabola – and he’d run straight to that spot and wait, mouth open. We figured him for a German shepherd/Australian shepherd mix. Where the jet black came from? Anybody’s guess.

He earned his name with his somewhat unconventional yen for people food. Our kitchen needed constant Moochproofing. We like good food, and Mooch developed a refined palate. Mooch would turn his nose up at table scraps. He wouldn’t eat fat cut trimmed from any kind of beef or pork. Ham held little interest for him. But bring seafood anywhere within a block of the homestead, Mooch goes nuts. Salmon skin was his closest touch of heaven. We could never get him to stop playing our heartstrings for fish. (And it occasionally worked.)

Anything on the counter was fair game. I diced some tofu for a stir fry, left the room for a second, and came back to the sight of Mooch, both paws on the counter, face down, going to town on a pile of soy protein. I also have clear memories of watching Mooch effortlessly snag a roast beef sandwich from the unsuspecting hand of my father (an easy target for such subterfuge).

The Sweet Partner and I usually end our day with some two-bite brownies and some good red wine. We really enjoy them – you know who else does? Mooch. We made the mistake of leaving some of these brownies on top of the sofa. This was in Mooch’s older days when he wasn’t getting around very well. He’d not climbed any of the furniture in several years. This time, though, we came back to an empty brownie container and an old dog with a new craving after he answered the brownies’ siren song.

I always joked with the SPinC that her adoption of Mooch paved the way for my entry into the family. When you get right down to it, Mooch and I were a lot alike. We’re both somewhat obnoxiously alpha, a bit twitchy, always keeping eyes out for a million things, and with attention spans that a fish can put to shame. We also try to make sure everyone’s safe, show a great deal of passion, love fiercely, and will do just about anything for a good scritch. Mooch was the first dog that I ever really understood. He was the one who made me really understand what a “dog person” was. I think we ended up training each other.

We put Mooch to rest a few weeks ago. His first, well-deserved break after fifteen years of constantly protecting the family. We buried his ashes in the patch of hostas where he used to love to flop while we were on our patio. (We’d also been keeping his big sister’s ashes, but we decided to put the two of them together. They’d always been inseparable.)

Mooch was the Sweet Boy and the Smoocher -- the eternally mobile speed bump in the kitchen. He greeted us every morning with bright eyes and furiously wagging, blackflowing tail that looked like it could have been on one of the squirrels he kept away. He always appreciated the chance the Sweet Partner gave him to show that he’d be a good part of a family. Just as I appreciated being a part of Mooch’s life. He taught me so much.

I was lucky enough to be scratching him behind the ears when he passed from our world.

Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Bad Dog Ranch 2005 Petit Sirah – A pretty easy call to look at this wine. Big nose of prune and cedar. Lots of dark fruit on the palate, but the flavor slides away a little quickly. Interestingly, the fruit returns on the finish along with some very solid but well-balanced tannins. A solid value petit sirah.

Boekenhoutskloof 2009 “The Wolftrap” Red Blend – Who knows? Maybe Mooch was part wolf? This red blend is from South Africa. Made up of syrah and mourvedre, with a little viognier thrown in for good measure. It has an unexpectedly vanillaish nose and was quite tart initially. Although it was lighter bodied and more acidic than I expected, this wine went exceptionally well with the aforementioned two-bite brownies.

Magnificent Wine 2008 “Fish House” Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc. We raised a glass of this to him over a pot of shrimp, mussel, & asparagus risotto. The wine went perfectly with the meal, but we would have had a difficult time eating this if Mooch had been around. He’d have been at the table, smiling broadly, asking for a bowl of his own.