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With a Chunk of Cheese, Pour These

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just as grapes achieve their gastronomic zenith as wine, milk reaches its own as cheese. Tasting wine and cheese together provides double the opportunities to contemplate the delicious wonders of fermentation.

It's not as easy as just uncorking your favorite wine for your favorite cheeses, of course. Cow's, sheep's and goat's milk can be transformed into fresh, aged, washed-rind, blue or any number of other cheese types, so the challenge to find a single wine that can stand up to the flavor spectrum of a typical party platter is formidable. But not impossible.

For a holiday party, the idealist's solution is to spotlight a few perfect matches by setting out stations, each featuring a single cheese and a half-glass of a perfectly complementary wine. That way, each will be shown to its best advantage. Among the best pairings, some are extraordinary:

- Chevre and Sancerre. Goat cheese -- especially fresh, such as French chevre -- is the most acidic of cheeses. A high-acid wine such as Sancerre or other crisp sauvignon blanc makes a perfect match, especially before dinner.

- Camembert and champagne. Cut through this rich, buttery washed-rind cheese with a crisp brut sparkler whose bubbles will cleanse the palate. While our runny wheel of Camembert was elegantly elevated by a glass of NV Champagne Delamotte Brut ($50), it was also a nice match with NV Lindauer Brut Sparkling Wine ($11) from New Zealand.

- Muenster and Gewurztraminer. Complement the creaminess of this Alsatian washed-rind cheese with the fruit-forwardness of an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, a perfect regional pairing. The 2004 is still in the stores, but keep an eye out for the 2005 Marc Kreydenweiss Kritt Gewurztraminer ($32), which will be hitting Washington area retailers within a month. It's an elegant introduction to this grape, with its off-dry apple fruitiness and delicate floral notes.

- Stilton and port -- or Roquefort and Sauternes. Both duos are based on the same principle: A rich, sweet wine is the perfect foil for a salty blue cheese, especially after dinner. While the English generally prefer port and the French like Sauternes, Americans are not bound by either tradition, leaving us open to explore both -- plus a host of other sweet wines. We loved the 2006 Seifried "Sweet Agnes" Riesling ($27 for 375 ml), a delicious ice wine in all but legal name: Temperatures in Nelson, New Zealand, don't fall low enough for the grapes to freeze naturally on the vine, so grapes are picked and then frozen on trays before being pressed. It's lovely with blue cheese, as is the lush, rich-textured 2003 Royal Tokaji Wine Company Red Label 5 Puttonyos ($39 for 500 ml) from Hungary, a blend of Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat grapes aged 3 1/2 years in old oak, creating a rich, ripe-peach fruitiness. ("Puttonyos" is a measure of sweetness, generally ranging from 3 to 6, with 5 puttonyos representing 120 grams of residual sugar per liter.)

- Cheddar and chardonnay. Last month at the Park Hyatt Washington, cheese expert Paula Pereira introduced us to Modesto, California-based Fiscalini Farmstead's Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar. An award-winning cow's milk cheese that is aged for 18 months and wrapped in bandaging to protect the rind, it is part of the hotel's new seasonal offering of artisanal cheeses. Lounge manager Gregory Philippe chose to pair it with a glass of 2005 Mer Soleil Chardonnay , explaining that the wine's "creamy, buttery, nutty" flavors would contrast nicely with the dry, hard texture of the cheese and its sharp flavor. Indeed they did.

A few weeks later, we enjoyed an aged English cheddar with the 2006 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay ($14), an oaked wine with vanilla notes whose ripe-pear and -apple flavors were a perfect complement. It reminded us how much we love the fortified chardonnay-based aperitif Kluge Estate Cru ($32) and apple-based La Face Cachee de la Pomme Neige Ice Cider ($30) with aged cheddar.

As with any pairing, though, the strategy often depends on whether you're starting with the wine or the cheese. A wine-centric solution is simply to serve only the wine-friendliest cheeses. Aged cheeses are more set in their ways than fresh, still-evolving cheeses and thus are more predictable pairing partners. Artisanal cheese expert Max McCalman, co-author of "Cheese" (Clarkson Potter, 2005) and "The Cheese Plate" (Clarkson Potter, 2002), suggests that the world's single most wine-friendly cheese is Sbrinz, a Swiss creation he describes as "the great-great- grandfather of Parmesan cheese."

Italian Parmesan itself is another way to go. Put out a knife with a big wheel (or just a big wedge, for smaller parties) of the best-quality aged Parmigiano-Reggiano you can find, and get things started by cutting at least a bowlful of it into small, bite-size chunks that your guests can snack on with virtually any wine you set out for them. Andrew still can't get over how well Parmesan cheese paired with an inexpensive red, a 2005 Blackstone California Merlot ($10).

A cheese-centered solution is to find a wine that will span many cheeses, surmounting that challenge we laid out at the beginning of the column. It's not likely to be a big red wine, whose strong tannins will clash with many cheeses. It's more likely to be fruitier, with a hint or more of sweetness to stand up to saltier cheeses. Our candidate for the single most cheese-friendly wine around? Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Pour a great Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer, or try the Marc Kreydenweiss Kritt mentioned earlier or the late-harvest 2002 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives ($15), which has richer tropical-fruit sweetness and more pronounced floral notes.

McCalman cites as one of his favorite cheese-friendly selections Moscato d'Asti, for its delicate sweetness and semi-sparkling texture. (We particularly enjoy Saracco and La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti.) And on the subject of bubbles, a brut champagne or sparkling wine can make friends with just about any cheese.

Come to think of it, with the right wine in our glasses, so can we.

Tip: Made for Each Other

If you already have the wine, some general pairing guidelines:

-Cabernet sauvignon: milder cow's milk cheeses (such as Gouda), milder blue cheeses

-Champagne: rich and buttery cheeses (such as brie), younger and milder cheeses

-Chardonnay: cow's and goat's milk cheeses; avoid sheep's milk cheeses

-Merlot: cow's and sheep's milk cheeses, milder blue cheeses

-Pinot noir: cow's and sheep's milk cheeses; avoid goat's milk cheeses and blue cheeses

-Sauvignon blanc: goat's and sheep's milk cheeses; avoid blue cheeses

-Syrah: cow's milk cheeses (such as cheddar); avoid blue cheeses

-Zinfandel: cow's and sheep's milk cheeses, blue cheeses

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.

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