In February we all need cheering up. Even for those not caught up in the Valentine’s Day red satin, hearts and roses, I suspect that many share my urge to indulge in quality cheese, wine (and/or chocolate). And to savour them together in a harmonious match-up is one of life’s precious feel-good experiences.
Pairing food and wine is not cause for anxiety when you consider a basic rule: pair by quality and intensity of flavour. Serve delicate foods with delicate wines and foods of stronger, assertive flavour with full-bodied, more complex wines.
Assessing flavour is however an individual affair. Everyone’s palate has a unique sensitivity to the five taste sensations, salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (the subtle savoury quality). Start by following suggestions for conventional combinations, such as pairing a rich creamy camembert with champagne (the sprightly bubbles cleanse the palate between bites) or pairing classic stilton with vintage port (the pleasing sensations of matching salty and sweet.) From there you can experiment and build on your experiences (take notes) to discover your own perfect match…Life can be tough sometimes!
PAIRING WINE WITH CHEESE
Before selecting wine, consider the age, texture and flavour characteristics of the cheeses you are serving. As cheese ages, moisture is lost, texture becomes firmer, relative butterfat content increases and flavours intensify. Depending upon the specifics of the aging process (affinage) — whether the cheese is bathed in brine, brushed with alcohol, injected with molds, surrounded in bark or wrapped in aromatic leaves-— more subtle and complex flavours develop. Keep it simple: when in doubt, or when trying something new, consult your friendly cheesemonger.
At serving time follow the same progression of taste in cheese —from delicate to pungent‑- with the characteristics of the wine ‑ white before red, light before full-bodied, young before old, dry before sweet. Remove the cheese from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Recommended serving temperatures for wines: white wines, 49°F (9 °C) to 55°F (13°C) (i.e. not too chilly or wine has sharp edges and aromas are dormant); red wines 62°F (17°C) to 68°F (20 °C); light-bodied reds may be served lightly chilled, around 50°F (10 °C).
The conventional wines to pair with soft, mild cheeses, such as young goat’s milk cheeses or soft bloomy-rind cheeses are crisp whites such as sauvignon blanc, or an off-dry sparkling wine. A richly flavoured, creamy cheese, like Brie de Melun, will blend with a more flavourful white, such as buttery, un-oaked or lightly oaked chardonnay. (Cheese generally does not fare well with oaky wines.) The traditional wine to serve with St Marcellin, one of the succulent chèvres from the Loire region of France, is a rich Sancerre from the same region. (Matching terroir, or region, of cheese and wine, is often another useful guide.) Try vintage rosé champagne with a luscious, bloomy rind, triple crème cheese, such as Delice de Bourgogne, Brillat Savarin, St Andrè, or a truffled brie, for the ultimate romantic taste experience.
The harder the cheese becomes during the aging process, the more full-bodied the wine can be. Firm cheeses, such as comté or emmenthal, generally pair well with light, medium-bodied red wines. Classic pairings for hard cheeses, include tangy cheddar with Bordeaux or Parmigiano Reggiano with rich, full-bodied Italian amarone where the tannins have been softened during aging. Blue cheeses vary as to creaminess, pungency and salt. The rich, cream salty sharpness of stilton or Roquefort is complimented by a deeply flavoured sweet wine. One way to go for a happy pairing of a selection of cheeses is a bottle of vintage champagne. I’m not going to argue with that!
PAIRING WINE WITH CHOCOLATE
Experts agree that finding the perfect wine match with chocolate is tricky. We need to solve this conundrum in February since chocolate has for ages been considered an aphrodisiac and we are likely to consume more of it than usual this month Nielson (the pollsters) estimate that more than 58 million pounds of chocolate will be sold during Valentine’s week!
SIDE NOTE: In spite of historical evidence that Montezuma, the 15th century Aztec ruler, consumed huge quantities of chocolate to increase his sexual prowess and Giacomo Casanova, the Venetian philanderer, described chocolate as the ‘elixir of love’ current research debunks the aphrodisiac properties of chocolate, suggesting that the allure is more psychological than physiological. (I’m banking on the power of suggestion!)
The huge range in quality of chocolate complicates successful pairing with wine. Imagine the difference in ‘mouthfeel’ of a sweet milky square of Aero and a bite of intense, single-estate, artisan, dark chocolate. To further complicate the task, chocolates come flavoured with creamy centres, caramel, hazelnuts, dried fruits, sea salt and even chilies or black pepper.
In essence consider the amount of milk solids and sugar in the chocolate and the percentage of cocoa butter included and choose a wine that is just a touch sweeter. Your favourite rich creamy milk chocolate will pair wonderfully with a late-harvest riesling. Dark chocolate will marry with a rich, soft red wine. For that special heart-shaped box of luscious chocolate treats, the absolutely perfect match has to be a bottle of rosy vintage bubbly.
For my resident sweetheart I know his favourite pairing: a bite of pure dark chocolate, a tiny wedge of Delice and a sip or two, or more, of Islay single malt!