My sister Anna used to dip her french fries into her Wendy’s chocolate Frosty when we were children. I gagged every time I saw her do it. She knew that it repulsed me, so she would move directly into my eye line when she did this, overemphasizing her chewing, smacking her lips, and cooing, “Mmm, Frosty and french fries! Yummy!”
It wasn’t until decades later that I would realize my enormous mistake. My sister was a culinary genius at the age of 6, and I was the philistine.
That very flavor combination of salty and sweet represents one of the most basic building blocks behind understanding how not only wine and cheese pair together but also wine and food and, indeed, all flavors in anything.
Today, we will stick with pairing wines and cheeses, however. It is a great place to start on the road to understanding the palate and why some things work and others don’t.
In my book, there are two major rules to matching flavors in cheese and wine: matching like flavors together (i.e. acidic with acidic, sweet with sweet), and matching opposite flavors and textures together (i.e. sweet and salty, fatty and fizzy).
The first principle of matching wine and cheese is the idea of like tastes working well together in your mouth. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a zippy, citrus-tinged wine with lots of grapefruit and refreshing lemon flavor. A fresh goat’s milk cheese, like a chevre, while creamy, also has quite a bit of acidity to it. You would think that putting these two into your mouth simultaneously would create an overpowering acidic taste that would lead to a violent pucker. Not so. In fact, it does the opposite. The acidity in the wine and cheese, in essence, cancels each other out. This in turn points up some of the more subtle notes in both the chevre and Sauvignon Blanc that you wouldn’t be able to taste if you had consumed them independent of each other. Suddenly the chevre is creamier and sweeter, and the Sauvignon Blanc is more delicate and floral.
The second principle of matching wine and cheese is actually twofold: matching opposite flavors, and matching opposite textures. Even if you hate bleu cheese (and if you do, you just haven’t found the right one yet) eat a bit of the French bleu cheese, Roquefort, and chase it immediately with a small sip of Tawny Port. Tawny is a port that is less tannic than Ruby or Vintage port, so the sweetness is more aggressive, and on its own, many people find it cloying (though I am not one of those people). Roquefort is an extremely salty cheese that is just too much for many people. This is where my sister Anna’s genius comes in, because together the salty and sweet create a third flavor in your mouth that doesn’t otherwise exist. A sort of nutty, caramel, burnt sugar flavor that is distinctive and delicate.
Now take a piece of a triple creme cheese, like Brillat Savarin, and follow it with a sip of Cava, which is a sparkling wine from Spain. The triple creme, with its high fat content, can be overbearingly rich on its own; but followed by a sip of Cava, the bubbles act like little scrubbers all along your tongue, cleansing and refreshing your palate for the next bite of cheese.
This is by no means an absolute set of rules for pairing wines and cheeses. My motto with wine and food is, and will always be, “Drink what you like with whatever you like.” These ideas are merely a jumping-off point to guide you toward further hedonistic exploration. It’s all about drinking something that tastes great and matching it with a delicious piece of food.
After all, no one ever told Anna to dip her fries into her Frosty because they paired well. She just did it ‘cause it tasted good.
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