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Pairing wine and cheese

Do you wonder why serving cheese with wine is so popular? Cheese is salty and salt enhances the tasting experience for many wines. A medium wine served with cheese may look like a better one and a good wine may appear fabulous; but there is more to it.

Ideas about wine and cheese pairing

Toronto, Canada has an entire convention devoted to Wine and Cheese, now going on for more than 20 years. But perhaps one shouldn't get too excited, since the pairing goes back at least 4,000 years.

Both products are made from living substances and improve with age, both are a product of fermentation, the process by which yeast cells introduce chemical changes and both reflect their terroir. 'Terroir' refers to the combination of soil, climate and region from which the product comes.

Traditionalists suggest that the wine and cheese be paired according to region or strength, thus preventing one from overpowering the other. Part of the reason is the tannin levels. Red wines, fermented with the skins, have a higher concentration than white and this affects the pairing characteristics. The protein and fat in cheese helps coat the palate, reducing the harshness of excess tannin.

This view goes so far in France as to be incorporated into the AOC laws. Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée is a set of regulations dictating grape growing and winemaking conditions, labeling, output, etc. Sometimes this match works well — the historic Grand Cru Montrachet is a perfect partner for the Montrachet Goat Cheese, having been made side by side for centuries.

Wines with higher tannin content do pair well with harder cheeses, whereas creamy cheeses require a wine with higher acidity, while whiter, fresher cheeses complement a crisper, fruitier wine. Heavy or rich cheeses make a fine partner to light reds or even Chardonnay. For example, Caraway and Gewürztraminer, Feta and Beaujolais, Havarti and Bordeaux.

Those who enjoy a sweet or dessert wine should seek out a strong, veined cheese and a full-bodied white or younger red with lower tannins goes well with a soft, bloomy white or red dotted rind.

As examples, a Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier or Riesling, even a Pinot Blanc, does wonderfully with most Goat's cheeses such as Fontina or Feta, Averti or Emmental. A dry Gewürztraminer pairs delectably with Brie or Camembert, Livarot or Oka. And a Gamay Noir or Cabernet Franc, even Barbaresco, does just fine with no rind, a Gouda, Gruyère or Munster.

When you've selected a complex Pinot Noir or Syrah, or one of the new Super Tuscans try a Chaput, Langres or Gubbeen. And for that Bordeaux or Grenache don't miss out on the oiled Parmigiano, Cantal or Tilsit.

Last, for the sweet Vouvray or Sauternes, or your favorite Auxe Icewine look for a blue-veined, a Cambonzola, Moutonnière or Mascarpone.

Traditionalists will always favor the tried and true rules of red with this and white with that or full-bodied with full-flavored and light with light. The radicals advocate experimentation and will favor the new and zesty. And the anarchist will say: 'Down with rules!'. But whatever one's leanings, all can agree that wine and cheese are the perfect running mates.

Art of cheese and wine matching

Nothing is more a matter of individual taste than, well, individual tastes. Pairing wine and cheese is one of the best examples. There certainly are guidelines that reflect a large consensus about which wine goes well with which cheese. Even individuals can have similar tastes. But there's plenty of room in pairing for the most rabid iconoclast, too.

Start your afternoon with a fine Bel Paese from the Lombardy region in Italy. This creamy, semi-soft cheese is a perfect partner to a fine Chardonnay. The milky aroma will blend nicely with the delicate buttery flavor of that fine white.

Prefer something from farther north? Why not slice off a big wedge of Wensleydale and set it side by side along your tongue with a great Gewürztraminer. This pale yellow delicacy from Wales can be traced back to Cistercian monks in the 11th century. It's an excellent complement to that delicious dry white from Alsace.

Go wild and try a Zamorano, made from unpasteurized Churra sheep's milk from Spain. The nutty flavor combines well with the fermented juice from those Tempranillo grapes. You'll be stomping your heels and clapping your hands in no time.

Had enough of that hot sun? Head to Sweden and try a Graddost. Soft and mild with a hint of tangy bite, just like the inhabitants of that Scandinavian land, it will go nicely with a delicate Chenin Blanc. The wine hails from France's Loire Valley and the pairing makes for a most diplomatic meeting of two great nations.

Head a little south and have a Havarti. This traditional Danish cheese is semi-soft, but the taste is as robust as the people. It makes a fine companion to a Bordeaux and the joining of those traditions of France and Denmark was never more apropos.

Head south again and go for a Gouda. The Dutch have long been among the world's best, and often least recognized, major cheese makers. Pairing a sample with a dry German Riesling will convince even the most hide bound skeptic that these two make the best of friends.

Celebrate your international neutrality by trying an Emmentaler. Mature (aged at least four months), but not wizened, this mild ivory cheese is great for a crackers and cheese dish, not just cooking. Pairing it with a fine Beaujolais from Burgundy will enhance your diplomatic reputation, and make you forget about all the troubles in the world.

Be bold and try a Cheshire, invented in England in the 12th century. Semi-hard, it will have you softening your stance on a variety of issues. Whether red or white, you'll find these lighter than cheddar. Combine it with a lovely glass of Champagne and you will have a delectable dining experience to write home about.

Finish off your world tour with a Cambozola. Creamy and flecked with blue, it's better than Brie for a sunny afternoon. Paired with a grassy Sauvignon Blanc, you won't even need the pasta to consider yourself in a connoisseur's field of dreams.

Be adventurous! See the world!

Some wine and cheese combinations have become standard because their flavors and aromas complemente each other. Try the suggested wines if any of those cheeses are appearing on your cheese board.

Tested wine-cheese pairs

Blue cheeses - pair with sweet wine; tawny port could also work. Try Roquefort and Sauternes.

Brie - pair with light and fruity reds. Try Beaujolais.

Camembert - pair with light and fruity reds, like Beaujolais, also with some reds with more flavor, like Chianti, or whites like Chablis.

Goat's cheese - pair with Sauvignon Blanc. Traditionally, from the Loire Valley, but there is plenty of selection nowadays.

Gruyére and Emmental - pair with Shiraz, Northern Rhone reds, or Merlot. Riesling also works.

Mature Cheddar - pair with a good red Bordeaux or tawny port.

Mozzarella - unoaked Chardonnay.

Parmesan - Italian reds, perfect with Sangiovese.

Pungent cheeses - Gewürztraminer.

Sheep's cheese - sweet whites like Riesling and Muscat or spicy reds.

Traditional English hard cheeses - cool climate white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc.

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