Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chess, Jazz, Baseball, and finally, Cheese.

Pairing wine and food is something that, if approached seriously and with the right balance of art and science, can produce thrilling results. But a serious approach is not necessary in order to be thrilled by food and wine pairing. The idea that a person must be steeped in knowledge in order to participate is nonsense, and I think people are starting to free themselves of this burden. People seem to be more and more comfortable with the notion that wine doesn't have rules - that they can drink white wine with Lasagna if they feel like it, and that wine and food is really about pleasure, not pretension.

I'm not trying to dumb down wine and food pairing. I think that our popular wine culture is close to going too far to denigrate as snobby the art of wine and food pairing. Overcompensating probably. It is snobby if a person is made to feel that they are wrong to make a certain pairing, or that their lack of knowledge should prevent them from happily participating. But it is not snobby to suggest that there is an art to pairing food and wine, and that a bit of practice and perhaps some study can produce great results.

I think that wine is like chess, jazz, baseball, and many other things that are easy to enjoy, but are still complex things. Wine can be enjoyed by just about anyone - it tastes and feels good. It's something that people all over the world drink with dinner. But like chess, jazz, or baseball, wine rewards careful attention in that its deeper intricacies are revealed only to those who spend enough time "practicing." And even for those who practice a lot, not everyone will experience the deepest pleasures of these things because there is a degree of talent involved. Luckily, we can enjoy without too much practice. But the practice is fun, and that's why you're reading this blog, isn't it? It's why I write this blog, anyway - it helps me practice and get even more pleasure from wine.

This has been a rather long winded way of getting to my point: I am essentially clueless when it comes to pairing wine and cheese. I understand that cheese helps to tame tannins in wine, like milk in black tea. And I am familiar with some classic pairings. But I don't know why certain wines work better than others with certain cheeses. And when I plan dinners at my house, the most uncomfortable part for me is picking wine to go with the cheeses I am serving. I know a little about cheese, more about wine, but I know almost nothing about how to make them work together. I enjoy all of my attempts, but I know enough to know that I don't know anything. I'm even confused about what to me is the most basic issue: red or white wine?

I decided that I'm going to use the light dinners on hot nights this summer to practice some more with wine and cheese. I'll read some, but I warn you - I'm going to just open different bottles with various cheeses and see what works for me and my friends. So there.

I started last week with a classic pairing - Loire goat cheese with a Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Sancerre is probably the most heralded wine to use, but I wanted a more humble wine. At Ten Bells a few weeks ago I asked the bartender to pick a wine to enjoy with their wild boar sausage. She picked a declassified Cheverny, now a Vin de Table, a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir by Christian Venier,a Loire hipster-natural-wine-biodynamic-producer. It was utterly delicious. There was no wild streak like in Puzelat's wines, but there was a volatility to the wine, particularly to the alcohol component. Served cool out of the wine fridge I just loved it, and it was perfect with the thinly sliced sausage.So why not Venier's Sauvignon Blanc? We sat on the deck on a lovely summer evening with a bottle of the 2007 Christian Venier Touraine Le Gautrie Sauvignon, $17, Savio Soares Selections, and a well known Loire Valley (from nearby Poitou, actually, but close enough) goat cheese called Le Chevrot. It is not young cheese, and not an aged cheese either - somewhere in the middle. The center of the pate (the 'dough' of the cheese - check out Fork & Bottle for great cheese info, tasting notes, and fancy terms like pate) is snow-white and chalky, and the outer part is creamy and yellow, but not runny, even at room temperature. The wine paired well and was lovely, although not as stunning an example of Loire Sauvignon Blanc as Venier's VdT is as a Cheverny. We had a great time that evening, and as Morgan Freeman said to his Captain at the beginning of the movie Se7en: "There will be more of these."
And by the way, our lily that blooms for only a few days each spring finally bloomed. We noticed it while enjoying our goat cheese and Sauvignon. It should have happened over a month ago but there has been so much rain, everything is all out of whack with the plants.


Cliff said...

I am a complete novice at this as well -- though, not for lack of trying -- and will be interested to see what others have to say. I am not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules that I have found, other than some tried and true matches, like stilton with a tawny port or Chenin with aged Gouda. I was hung up for a long time on the red/white question. As a broad proposition, I think white wines give you more flexibility. Most soft, fatty, creamy cheeses kill red wines, certainly good ones. But then I was at a tasting at my dorm in France years ago where a producer poured a growling, tanic Nuits Villages with an époisses, and the match was fantastic. The cheese would have killed a more noble wine, but the texture was just right. I'll never forget it. Most of the time, I have an easier time matching reds with harder, older cheeses. I've done best trying to match weight and texture, but to really get it right one would need to know way more than I do about cheese, and also more about how the wines are showing than I often do.

Brooklynguy said...

chenin with aged gouda?!? never heard about that one. i agree on the whites and flexibility. although i find myself wanting to drink white and only white wine lately. thanks for your comments cliff.

Cliff said...

Fair point. Chenin and Gouda doesn't really compare to the classic regional combos like Sancerre and a good goat cheese or Comté with Vin Jaune. With the proviso that I would probably like adolescent Huet demi-sec with Cherios, I have found it a lovely pairing with aged Gouda, the salty nuttiness of the cheese playing off the wooly-funk-perfection of the wine. Now that I think about it, Comté, and Gouda for that matter, are among the more flexible cheeses in my experience, when I have a wine I want to show to good effect and am not sure about something more exotic.

With the weather turning, I'm reaching more and more for whites and rosé -- but in particular for the von Nell demi-sec Sekt you wrote about awhile back. Fantastic stuff.