MATCHING CHEESE AND WINE
THE 18TH CENTURY French gastronomist Brillat- Savarin is often credited with the observation, "A good meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye." Cheese complements any good meal, and its versatility also makes it an excellent foil for wine.
There are age-old couplings -- stilton and port, for instance -- but random pairings can also produce some delightfully unexpected results. This was the case in a recent tasting held by the Decanter Club in which six renowned cheeses were put up against six good but extremely varied wines.
The cheeses were chosen by Carlos Estrada, manager of the Georgetown Wine and Cheese Shop. From France there were Le Cornilly ch,evre, mild and very smooth goat cheese; Isigny camembert and a creamy Soulie brillat-savarin that ran on the plate, both made from cow's milk. There was a fine parmigiano reggiano from Italy, a fairly restrained liederkranz from the United States and a stilton from England.
The wines were an '83 Les Chenes m.acon-villages, an uncomplicated chardonnay; the '83 Clos St. Landelin riesling from Alsace that showed the strength and fragrance of a very
good vintage; a '79 Chorey-les-
Beaune with the depth and
earthiness expected in a burgundy; a '79 carmignano from Tuscany, like a chianti but containing cabernet sauvignon as one of
the blending grapes; an '80 Joseph Phelps zinfandel, smooth
and spicy, with a high degree of alcohol; and a Sandeman Founders Reserve port.
The idea was to try as many cheeses with as many wines as one could manage. A few tasters actually tried the liederkranz with the riesling (it didn't work; in fact, no wine was up to the demands of that lovely cheese), but most tasters exercised some discretion. The more conventional pairings are ch,evre with chardonnay, camembert with riesling, brillat- savarin with burgundy, parmesan with carmignano and stilton with port. One surprise was the brillat-savarin with the riesling. The cheese's creamy richness would seem ill suited to the floral quality of the grape, but together they were both transformed. The riesling also suited the goat cheese; the other white, the m.acon, was too light for anything other than the ch,evre.
Among the reds the carmignano proved the most versatile. It was wonderful with the parmesan, of course, but equally brilliant in the company of brillat-savarin. Dry and full- bodied like all good Italian reds, it seemed made for cheese, able to cut through the distinctive tastes of all but the liederkranz and still retain its character.
The Chorey-les-Beaunes accepted the camembert and the brillat-savarin, wo cheeses from its own neighborhood, and made a convincing pass at the parmesan. But pinot noir, for all its earthiness, proved more delicate than its competitors from Italy and California. The wild card among the wines, the zinfandel, went equally well with camembert and, oddly enough, the parmesan.
The tasting concluded with stilton and port, and a handful of walnuts to provide some counterpoint. The classic combination could not be improved upon, everyone agreed, although stilton and zinfandel made a heady match and one worth watching for future development.