Penicillium roqueforti and Botrytis cinerea sound more like diseases than the world's greatest helpers in the mating of wine and food. These blue-cheese and wine fungi produce two great ingestibles, a wine and food combination better than caviar and champagne: blue cheese and a sweet white wine.
Serving blue-veined cheeses with naturally sweet white wine sounds akin to recommending peanut butter sandwiches with burgundy. But somehow the rich succulence of a French sauternes or barsac, a German or Austrian beerenauslese, or an American late-harvest riesling provides the perfect foil for the pungent, sharp saltiness of a gorgonzola, stilton or roquefort.
I know that all the cheese and wine charts say to drink red wine with blue cheese under the assumption that flavors as strong as that of blue cheese could be matched only by a big red wine.
I know that all the wine and cheese charts tell you to drink the sweet white wines with fruits, permitting the sweetness of the two to intertwine.
Both of these textbook combinations pair wines and foods that complement each other. The most intriguing wine and food combinations, however, are those that contrast with each other. Complementary flavors weave a melodic harmony. Contrasting flavors thrust and parry.
Not every sweet wine is made for blue cheese. The best are the naturally sweet whites that have been prey to the mold Botrytis cinerea.
Botrytis spores land on the grapes as they are ripening, and, feeding on the grapes' moisture, grow rapidly. Sometimes called the "noble rot," Botrytis shrivels and dehydrates grapes, concentrating their sweetness and tartness. Within a few days it can completely cover the grapes with a thick layer of mold, making Botrytis-affected grapes look disgusting and inedible. The resulting wines, however, are truly nectar of the gods. They can rage from slightly sweet to powerfully sweet, depending on how much Botrytis there is. The best are about 10 to 20 percent sweet, yet are tart enough not to be cloying. Most have a honey, apricot or peach-like character.
The first wine makers to discover Botrytis probably were the Hungarians near Tokaji. Wine historian Gerald Hirsch of Chicago says that "for centuries they made dry white wine in the area. Then, one season in the 17th Century, when the Ottomans were trying to overrun the Hapsburg Empire, they had to go from Turkey through Hungary to get to Vienna. The villagers of Tokaji were so busy defending their property against the onslaught, they could not pick their grapes. By the time the battle was over and they had defeated the Turks, their grapes were overripe and rotten with the Botrytis.
They had nothing to do but try to make a wine because these were the only grapes they had, and the local economy depended heavily on wine. The results were so spectacular, they have made wine from Botrytised grapes ever since."
Another story claims that the noble rot was discovered by the monks who operated Schloss Johannisberg on the Rhein River in Germany in 1716 (some historians say 1783). The story goes that when the monks thought that the grapes appeared ripe and ready to harvest they would pick a few bunches and send them to the Bishop of Fulda for his blessings and permission to begin the harvest. Fulda was only about one day's ride from Johannisberg. But in 1716 (or 1783) the messenger sent to Fulda did not return for more than a week. He claimed to have been waylaid by highwaymen (although some believe it was actually a highwaywoman).
In any case, by the time he returned with permission to harvest, the morning mists and Botrytis had done their deed, and the vineyard was completely enveloped with mold. Despirited, the monks picked the "ruined" grapes, and glumly attempted to make wine from them. Lo and behold, the thick, rich, sweet nectar that resulted was astonishing, and today, in the courtyard of the famous castle of Johannisberg, there is a statue of the messenger whose tardiness made it all possible.
While ripening, the interior of blue cheeses develops a blue-green mold known as Penicillium roqueforti, named after the French village Roquefort, home of the most famous of blue cheeses. Whether they come from Roquefort, Auvergne or Bresse in France, or are called gorgonzola (from Italy) or stilton (from England), or are American or Danish blue; they have distinct blue-marbled interiors caused by the mold. Most blue cheeses are made from cow's milk (except for roquefort, which is made from sheep's milk) and range from 40 to 55 percent fat. They are moist, crumbly, creamy and sometimes granulated in texture. Their flavor is intensely rich, tangy, spicy and salty.
Combining the Two
First, buy a bottle of Botrytised white wine. Most experts think that the greatest in the world is a French wine called Chateau d'Yquem, made with sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes from the region of Sauternes. This rich gold bullion is far too expensive for mere mortals (starts at $50), and although there is no other wine from the area that comes close, practically any sauternes or neighboring barsac from a good vintage will pair well with blue cheese.
Other vineyards in Sauternes and Barsac do not have the perfect soil and climate as does d'Yquem, nor do they have the money to pay waves of pickers to go into the vineyards daily for weeks picking only the Botrytised grapes. But the others are still worth seeking, even the regional blends. The best recent vintages are 1986, 1983, 1981, 1976, 1975, 1971 and 1970. Regionals still can be found for $10 and other chateaux for about $15 to $25.
Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese are two grades of German and Austrian wine that are Botrytis-affected, increasing in sweetness and price respectively. They go for about $25, and $50 per bottle, respectively. They are only made in the best vintages, so any vintage will do for this experiment.
The discovery that Botrytised wines could be made in California is recent. The first great one was the Freemark Abbey 1973 Edelwein from Johannisberg riesling grapes. Since then many wineries have made some spectacular examples, rivaling the great European wines in quality and price. Again, any vintage will do.
Hungarians still make Botrytised tokaji, but their butterscotch-like flavor, which comes from the unique local grapes and exposure of the wine to air, does not work as well with blue cheese as do the others.
With the others, here's how the combination works. After the first nibble of the cheese, the tongue is shocked. It becomes immediately thirsty from the salt. Then comes the wine, with a succulent sweetness that overcomes the salt, while its crisp tartness neutralizes the creamy texture and penetrating flavor. After swallowing, the memory of the symphony of sensations lingers, but the tongue has been cleansed with the wine and is ready for more cheese. Then wine, then cheese, some more wine, some more cheese ...
Firestone 1985 Johannisberg Riesling, Selected Harvest, The Ambassador's Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley: Here's the perfect mate for blue cheese. A succulent 17.6 percent sweet, it is a deep golden color with the aroma and flavors of ripe, dried apricots. Alcohol is so low, at 9.7 percent, it almost tastes non-alcoholic.
Price: Suggested retail of about $10-$12 per half bottle. Actual price may vary significantly. Wholesale supplier is Forman Bros., in Washington (398-3300). Wholesale suppliers cannot sell directly to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers.
Craig Goldwyn, International Wine Review magazine