A recent cheese and wine pairing class with an adventurous master of wine, Anne McHale, who is based in London, got me thinking about the relationship between these two treats.
We started off with a 2012 Sancerre (sauvignon blanc), by Francois Cotat, paired with a Sainte-Maure de Touraine, both of which are from the Loire Valley. The Sancerre had a nice, fresh nose of pink grapefruit and lime leaves, with a zingy finish. The Sainte-Maure had a blueish-grey mould on the outside and, most interestingly, a long straw running the length of the interior (to facilitate ease of handling as it ages). The goats' cheese was slightly salty, with a creamy, nutty finish - a perfect counterfoil to the wine. I usually drink Sancerre with a much simpler, white-rind goats' cheese, such as a Crottin or a Chabichou.
Our next white wine was a 2009 Meursault (made from chardonnay grapes), from Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet, paired surprisingly with a Pont l'Eveque - a square-shaped, washed-rind cheese from Normandy. The Meursault had lots of fleshy ripe apple, pear and nectarine fruits that balanced the salty notes from the washed rind of the Pont l'Eveque.
I would have paired a Meursault with a milder cheese, one with a white bloomy rind such as a Brie de Meaux. The Pont l'Eveque was eye-openingly different.
The first red was a 2009 Gigondas, from Costevieille, a Rhone wine that is only made in exceptional vintages, when conditions are perfect. This was adventurously paired with Taleggio. The iconic Italian washed-rind cows' milk cheese from Lombardy is washed with a sea-water sponge once a week, while in production, to achieve its signature pale orange coat and prevent mould forming.
Although it has a strong aroma, the taste of Taleggio is balanced, with a mild, fruity tang. With the Gigondas' nose of juicy red fruits (black cherry and blackberry), warm spices (star anise, cracked pepper) and whiff of lavender, the contrast was nothing short of amazing. What would I have served normally? An old English cheddar is my go-to cheese for Rhone wines.
A classic Bordeaux, the 2007 Chateau Batailley (made with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot), from Pauillac, was a great match for a 12-month-old comté, a semi-hard artisan cheese made with unpasteurised cows' milk from the Jura region of France. The comté has a wonderful smoky aroma and a nutty, salty-sweet flavour that balances out the tannins in the wine. It's the little black dress of cheeses as it also worked well with three other wines we tried.
We ended the evening with two sweet wines: a 2010 premier cru Sauternes (semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle), by Chateau Rieussec, with its traditional pairing of slightly sharp roquefort (made from unpasteurised sheep's milk); and a special private bottling of a William Pickering 20-year-old tawny port (too many grapes to list), for Berry Brothers & Rudd, which was matched perfectly with a quintessential British blue cheese - stilton, which is made from cow's milk. I was curious to see if the two blue cheeses were interchangeable with the dessert wines. The stilton overpowered the Sauternes, but a tentative sip of the port with roquefort was an eye-opener. It was, unexpectedly, very good and brought out some toasty hazelnut notes in the wine.
My conclusion? Be more daring with your cheese pairings!
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.