Veritas Wine Club: The Wine and Cheese Convergence

Wine and cheese has been a celebrated culinary coupling for centuries. Pairing the duo, however, is not always an elementary assignment. With the increasing diversity of both available at your local grocery store, selection can quickly become overwhelming.  Does this Gaglioppo pair with a block of Timberdoodle?

This month’s Veritas Wine Club at Tchin Tchin Bar, located in Honolulu’s Chinatown District, sought to provide a few basic wine and cheese pairing tips, utilizing items easily found at any local market. Learn, practice, repeat.

To stay on theme, I offer a few wine and cheese pairing tips of my own before we turn to this month’s lineup and find out what the Tchin Tchin gang brought to the table.

So let’s get cheesin’.

Affinity for Affinage

The majority of cheeses we consume are aged to some extent. Age makes cheese delicious. Nom nom.

Cheese is typically left to age (or “ripen”) in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment (often called "caves") for varying lengths of time depending on the type of cheese and desired effect. So what happens during this ripening process? Affinage happens. Beautiful, wonderful affinage.

Affinage is a fancy term that refers to the aging and maturing of cheese. As cheese ages, time, temperature and bacteria combine to cause biochemical reactions that break down the proteins, fats, and sugars in the cheese.  These biochemical reactions alter the flavor and texture compounds of the final cheeses. As ripening progresses, more complex flavors are produced.  

It is truly all about the affinage? Of course not; that would be an oversimplified paradigm. A multitude of factors, including milk composition (e.g., milk fat, water content, proteins, natural sugars), the cultures and rennet used to commence the cheesemaking process, and method of fabrication all affect the overall quality of cheese. Affinage arrives too late in the game to change these basic elements. Under capable supervision, however, affinage can facilitate biochemical reactions in a manner that develops the very best possible aromas, flavors, and textures from the cheese. Good affinage equals better cheese.

How do these scientific musings translate to a decent wine pairing?

Tip #1: Pair wine and cheese by weight, texture, and flavor intensity.

Affinage affects weight, texture, and flavor intensity of cheese. Young fresh cheeses, without the significant aging and affinage, commonly have a high water content and a milky, delicate texture. As cheese ripens, the moisture slowly evaporates, leaving behind fat and protein. Fat and protein carry flavor. Delicious. Affinage concentrates that flavor. Even more delicious. Through aging and affinage, older cheeses become hard, intense, rich, and savory.

Young and soft cheeses partner best with wines that contain bright, even bracing, acidity with fresh fruit and citrus notes. Fruit-forward is favorable; with cheese, fruit is a reliable friendly companion. For young, soft cheeses, try sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry rosés and lighter reds with moderate acidity (such as Beaujolais or Barbera).

For young, soft cheeses, try sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry rosés and lighter reds with moderate acidity (such as Beaujolais or Barbera).

With age comes complexity. Medium- to full-bodied red wines with ample, round tannins can complement the intensity of semi-firm, firm and aged cheeses.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Sangiovese are all prime candidates. And be sure to pay attention to those tannins. Tannins favorably bind to the protein and fat now concentrated in aged cheeses, leaving the wine to soften and express more of its fruit (for similar reasons, these wines are classic pairings for red meat dishes, such as steak and lamb).

Opposites Attract.

Opposites attract. Universally true in electromagnetism, occasionally true in romance. In food and wine, it is definitely worth some further experimentation.

Tip #2: Pair wine and cheese that possess opposite but harmonizing characteristics.

The truest culinary example of this principle may be the time-honored tradition of salty and sweet. Saltiness will heighten the perception of sweetness in the wine, which can offer a pleasant balance on the palate. Moderation is paramount. A wine too sweet may become overbearing with a salty cheese. Salty cheese? Try a semi-sweet wine.  

One of my favorite examples is aged smoked Gouda paired with a German or Alsatian Gewürztraminer. The sweet tropical lychee notes from the Gewürztraminer tame and complement the smoky characteristics of the cheese. Another classic example of opposites playing nicely together is a strong, pungent blue cheese, such as Roquefort or Stilton, with a sweet dessert wine, such as Sauternes in Bordeaux or a Port wine from Douro Valley.

Disclaimer: patience required. This genre of pairing requires some trial and error; not all of these marriages end positively. Fatal attractions are bound to occur. Persevere, however, and some rewarding pairings are certain to follow.

Eat Local, Drink Local, Cheese Local.

In a recent post, I offered some general tips for wine pairings at your favorite local BYOB restaurant. One of those tips was to “eat local, drink local.” The same principle is applicable for wine and cheese pairings. The particular climate, terroir, and growing conditions unique to a region’s wines are oftentimes the same characteristics imparting flavor to the local cheese varieties. Moreover, there is a natural, symbiotic relationship between the food and wine traditions of a particular region. They are not cultivated without the other in mind.

Tip #3: Pair wine and cheese from the same region.

It is no coincidence that the Loire Valley, home to the Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé is also home to some of the best quality goat cheeses in the world. The fruit and grass flavors combined with bright acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc is a nice counterbalance to the sourness and dryness of goat cheese. Similarly, an aged Asiago from Northern Italy would be a fine pairing with a robust Barolo, Brunello, and Barbaresco. Manchego can be a match for a variety of Spanish wines, such as Sherry, Rioja and Garnacha blends.

This principle isn’t universal; other tips discussed above are important to consider. But, when in doubt, beginning in the same region can greatly improve your potential pairing parity.

So, with these principles in mind, how did the gang at Tchin Tchin do with this month’s cheesy pairings?

The Diversity of France’s Loire Valley

Half of the evening's wine and cheese pairings originated France's Loire Valley. As one of my favorite regions in the world, we are off to a terrific start.

The Loire River is the longest river flowing through France. It begins in Massif Central, a south-central, mountainous region, and flows north several hundred miles into the center of France near the city of Orleans before turning west and eventually emptying into the Atlantic. The climate of the Loire Valley becomes cooler as one travels east and away from the tempering effects of the Atlantic Ocean. The banks of this river are prime real estate for vineyards, and because of its long length and different climate zones, grape varietals and styles vary significantly within the region.  Here, there is something for everyone.

Touraine is a large appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) located in the central portion of the Loire Valley. This far inland, the Atlantic’s influence is significantly diminished, and the climate is more mild and temperate. Touraine is the largest subregion of the Loire Valley, and home to more than 150 AOC subregions. With so much competition, it can be hard to stand out amongst the crowd. Two subregions on the menu tonight do so splendidly.

2014 Cheverny, Domaine du Salvard, Loire Valley, France; Paired with Goat Cheese Crostini.

In upper Touraine, the AOC of Cheverny has a few unique aspects working in its favor. First, terroir. Erosion of the Loire River, and corresponding deposits, is higher here than most other regions. Second, blending. Much of the Loire Valley’s white wine regions subscribe to a singular varietal paradigm.  One grape to rule them all. For example, Vouvray, Savennières and others place Chenin Blanc as the preeminent varietal. Similarly, AOC’s further east, such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, are famously bound to Sauvignon Blanc. In contrast, Cheverny’s white wines take a more polyvarietal path, being derived from a blend between Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Gris. For Cheverny, more is better.

This wine, consisting of 80 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 20 percent Chardonnay, was golden yellow with hints of green. On the nose, ripe white peach took centerstage, with elements of grass, citrus (tangerine and lemon peel) and honeysuckle. On the palate, the character was light and fruit-forward with a slight honeyed sweetness.  Medium finish with wonderful, balanced mineralality and bright acidity.

The evening’s wine champion.

While the wine was brilliant, the pairing not as much. Ironically, the pairing was perfection on paper. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc paired with a young, soft goat cheese from the same region. Suspicion is high that the culprit was not the cheese itself, but other elements in the appetizer that suppressed the sweetness and acidity in the wine. With such a classic pairing, simpler might have been better.

2013 Domaine des Rouet Chinon Fleurs, Touraine, Loire Valley, France; Paired with Port Salut Crostini

Meanwhile, in lower Touraine, where the Loire meets two of its major tributaries - the Indres and the Vienne - lies the appellation d'origine contrôlée of Chinon.  The climate is still temperate and warm, with a terroir abundant with limestone, sand and gravel rocks provided by the confluence of rivers. This translates to red wine country, and Cabernet Franc rests comfortably as king.

This Cabernet Franc was medium bodied and rich with red fruit - red currant, raspberry and cherry, with classic elements of bell pepper and tobacco. Well-rounded tannins and a pleasant, dry finish. 

Port Salut, a product of Brittany in the Loire Valley, is a young, semi-soft cheese with savory and slightly sweet flavor.  Despite its soft, creamy texture and relatively mild flavor, it is best paired with red wine, and is a classic partner for neighboring Chinon and Bourgueil.  Tonight, the Port Salut was spread over a lightly-toasted crostini and drizzled with a red wine reduction.  An enjoyable wine and reliable pairing, but overall subordinate to the evening’s other offerings. On this night, stringent competition abounds.

2012 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Riserva, Chianti Rúfina, Italy; Paired with Taleggio Grilled Cheese.

In the Tuscan hills between Florence and Siena lies one of the most recognizable wine regions in the world: Chianti. They have been growing grapes here for a long time. A really long time. In 1716 - sixty years before the American Revolution - Chianti became the first region in the world to be delineated as a wine appellation. The area was first limited to the land around the villages of Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina, with Greve added later. This is now considered the Chianti Classico Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), easily recognizable by the gallo negro, or Black Rooster, that dons its labels.

Over time the Chianti region has expanded to include other subregions. The DOCG of Chianti Rúfina, east of Florence and northeast of Chianti Classico, is the most distinctive Chianti subregion outside of Chianti Classico. An appellation dotted with aristocratic estates, vineyards, and olive groves, Rúfina’s wine history can be traced back to at least the Sixteenth Century. The finesse and longevity of Rúfina’s wines are largely the result of a pass through the Apennines mountains to the north that permits maritime breezes to cool the vineyards. This, combined with higher elevation (up to 500 meters) and cool autumn nights, result in excellent acidity. Here, as in the entire Chianti DOCG, Sangiovese is the dominant grape varietal.

This wine possessed a beautiful ruby-red color, with a nose opening to dark fruit and cherry, floral notes of lilac, and subtle chocolate. The spice elements make their presence on the palate, with nutmeg, clove and hints of black pepper. Tannins are dry and soft, but not overbearing. The finish is fruity with some minerality. The wine is full bodied, with bright acidity and a silky, fruity finish that holds just the right amount of minerality. A great value red wine under $20.

As one of the best pairings of the evening, the Italian Taleggio grilled cheese with caramelized onions offered a balance of saltiness and sweetness to complement the soft tannins and spice of the wine. As a young, softer cheese, the Sangiovese might have been a bit of a daring pairing. But when in doubt, eat local, drink local, cheese local. This time, it worked wonderfully.

2013 Michael David 6th Sense Syrah, Lodi, California; Paired with Manchego Crostini.

“Hey, California wine trip, we must stop in Lodi!” No one has uttered that phrase. Ever.

But wait, perhaps someone should.

Lodi is a little-known American Viticultural Area (AVA) with a lot of wine history, at least by American standards. Located between the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, and the wetlands of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to the west, the region’s climate and terroir demonstrated to its early residents an efficacious agricultural haven. By the 1880s, European immigrants had settled in and planted Zinfandel and other varietals along the banks of the Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers. Old-vine Zinfandel is well-established as Lodi’s traditional strength. Sometimes called the Zinfandel capital of the world, Lodi is responsible for 32 percent of all Zinfandel produced in the state of California. If you find yourself stuck in Lodi again, seek out a few old-vine companions to help pass the time.

Sometimes called the Zinfandel capital of the world, Lodi is responsible for 32 percent of all Zinfandel produced in the state of California.

The rivers running through Lodi are responsible for granitic alluvial soils that are washed down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Cool maritime breezes from San Francisco Bay, most often cut off from inland appellations, reach Lodi and cool its vineyards through a gap in the Coast Ranges. These two characteristics set Lodi apart in the region as an AVA with significant potential.

For this wine, better go big or go home. The wine was big and fruit-forward, with jammy ripe fruit aromas and flavors of plum, blackberry and cherry. There was plenty more than just ripe fruit, however. The oak aging shines through with cedar, vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and baking spice. The tannins were textured and sweet, coupled with medium acidity. Pleasant hints of tobacco linger in a long, dry finish. Not terribly complex, but if you like jammy, fruit-forward wines, this will hit the spot. At around $15 a bottle, it won’t break the bank, either.

The wine was paired with a Manchego crostini topped with blackberry reduction and arugula. The Syrah was more than capable to stand up to the concentrated flavors of the Manchego, while the blackberry reduction accented the wine’s jammy black fruit characteristics. The arugula highlighted black pepper notes famous to the Syrah varietal.

Best overall pairing.

Tip of the cap to Justin, the evening’s host, and the rest of the Tchin Tchin crew. The Veritas Wine Club events get better with each passing month, and the team is really honing their craft and presentation. Overall, the wine selection this month was excellent and diverse, and patrons could walk away with a few helpful cheese pairing tips. Cheers!

What are your standard wine and cheese pairings? Do you have any surprising partners? Comment below and share your pairing knowledge!