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.

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