I’ll admit it: I have long shied away from reds when pairing wine with cheese. Before I spent my days and nights in cheese, I drank red wines with aplomb, but after one too many blue or bloomy pairings that ended up tasting like I’d chomped down on a penny, I felt far more comfortable within the cozy embrace of a fragrant Mosel Riesling, a zippy Sancerre, a nutty PX sherry.
A few years ago, I was working at Murray’s Cheese as their Director of Education, writing curriculum and teaching classes about the wonders of cheese. I had the good fortune to work alongside certified Cheese Rockstar, Tia Keenan, who took everything I thought I knew about the joy of cheese and its consumption and turned it on its head. I would watch her deep fry squeaky cheese curds before coating them in buffalo sauce, served hot alongside the Platonic ideal of blue cheese just before she effortlessly constructed the most elegant, unadorned cheese plate I’d ever seen, all with the same finesse, the same restrained hedonism gracing the table. AND THEN, as if I hadn’t seen it all, one day she slipped into the classroom with Eric Asimov, BFD of wine, and tasted through dozens of cheeses WITH RED WINE. Wine! But red! What was she thinking? What was she-- some kind of witch, wizard, enchanteuse, whose magical power wasn’t turning water into wine but big, swarthy red wine into something whose tannins didn’t punch a little goat tomme in the face, and then demand her lunch money? I eagerly gobbled up their leftovers and waited for the column. The bottom line: “I tell people not to be afraid.” (PS: Speaking of unafraid, run don’t walk to your nearest purveyor of books and pick up Tia’s book, The Art of the Cheese Plate, just out from Rizzoli. Daring but do-able, totally out-of-this-world cheese plates, pairings, and layers upon layers of gorgeous styling.)
And so, with that lack of fear in mind, I dropped a Red Wine and Cheese class on the Cheesemongers calendar, grabbed my wine buddy Kelly Arthrell to select some cool bottles, and set to work assembling a slate of cheeses that could partner up with those oaky, tannic dreams with poise and equanimity.
Most classes yield a few truly great pairings alongside a handful of pretty goods. They all teach us something, but it’s rare to have each and every wine transform each and every cheese, and vice versa. Perhaps it was the complexity of the wine, perhaps it was that mercury was retrograde, perhaps it was any number of things, but friends-- these pairings were STELLAR.
Here they are:
Truchard Pinot Noir 2013 with Consider Bardwell Manchester
The combination of velveteen Pinot Noir, redolent of Alpine strawberries, smacking of tart cherry with the fudgy, earthy, giant-bouquet-of-herbs Manchester served to elevate both the wine and the cheese, making them bigger, bolder, more luscious versions of themselves.
Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2011 with Pecorino Parco and Pecorino Signor G
“Pecorino of the Park”-- a dense, firm cheese made on La Porta dei Parchi in Abruzzo, Italy, from the raw milk of sheep that graze on upwards of a hundred herbs in their meadows-- gripped onto the wine for dear life, softening into a sheepy butter and revealing flavors heretofore concealed: nasturtium blossom, hyssop, and the last bite of browned fat from a lambchop. The wine, similarly, was brought into harmony with itself, its acidic backbone curving, its tannic complexity stretching to meet the lingering finish of the cheese.
The velutinous rind (thanks, Thesaurus.com!) of Signor G, made at Il Lischeto Farm in Tuscany by Giovanni Cannas, conceals a pliable, pudgy paste, just this side of spreadable, in contrast to the firm, almost crystalline texture of the Pecorino Parco. And despite (or perhaps because of) this difference, Signor G sang alongside the Cannonau equally well. It was like the hillside songs of the Sound of Music, or Heidi, or a Ricola commercial: grassy, harmonious, bright.
Catherine et Pierre Breton Chinon Beaumont with Queso Verano + Grace&I Bourbon-Soaked Fruit
This wine is basically the Louise Brooks bob, Tilda Swinton, Queen Elsa, Amal Clooney, Bensimon sneakers and Simone de Beauvoir all rolled into one. That is to say, feminine, sharp, clean, and chic as all hell, made all the moreso with the warmth and delicate vegetal notes of Vermont Shepherd’s 100% sheep tomme, Queso Verano. We wanted to shake things up, so we added in some supple apricots, prunes, and figs soaked in bourbon (sacrilege! Wine and bourbon?!) by Grace&I, rounding out the pairing with some succulent fruit and a teensy bit of boozy tobacco on the finish.
Mendel Malbec 2014 with Keen’s Cheddar
Before we headed into dessert territory, Kelly selected a wine we could sink our teeth into but not, you know, lose a filling or anything. It was big but not too big, the Goldilocks equivalent of a malbec. Tasting notes describe it as having torrefaction notes, to which I yelled, “YES!” straight into my cup of coffee.
I’ve sold Keen’s Cheddar for the better part of the last decade, as have my CSF colleagues, but when we cut into this wheel of Somerset cheddar (through layers and layers of lard-smeared cloth binding), we all agreed it was the best wheel we had ever tasted. The texture was like boardwalk fudge. The aromas were the floor of the forest after a quick sunshower, and the flavor was like mustard seed, sherry vinegar, and quivering egg yolk. I swear, I’m not trying to come up with the most ridiculous tasting notes around-- that’s just what it was!
Mendel Malbec + Keen’s Cheddar high fived and then did some sort of breakdance on the pallet. It wasn’t subtle. It was bold and perfect, earthen and vibrant. I was in love.
Brachetto D'Acqui DOCG - Giulio Cocchi with Cabra Raino + Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha & Harbison
There’s no getting around the fact that this wine is sweet, nor should there be. It’s a fresh, delightful expression of hand-harvested grapes; it’s fun! But tannins are present, which makes it all the more interested to pair. A clean, fluffy goat milk gem with a delicate bloomy rind would have been an easy match, but I wanted something more. A custardy wheel of Cabra Raiano was just the ticket, with enough aromatics to match the nose of the wine, but with a tangy, lively flavor to dance around the wine. The effervescence lifted the cheese off of the tongue, and a dab of Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha added just enough heat to create the perfect sweet-salty-spicy bite.
Jasper Hill’s Harbison, a spruce-bound bloomy rind cheese made of pasteurized cows’ milk, matched similarly in texture, but drew out the woodsy tannins in the wine while the sweetness in the wine elevated the butter and sweet corn in the cheese. It was a veritable picnic, I’m telling you.
Porto Kopke 10 Year Tawny with Bayley Hazen Blue & Beenleigh Blue
We ended with the richest of wines, a ten year Tawny Port, with caramel, fig, and roasty-toasty notes, alongside two decadent blues: Bayley Hazen, a meaty natural rind raw cows’ milk blue from Jasper Hill, and Beenleigh, a sheep milk blue with the texture of tres leches cake, crafted in Southwest England. This wasn’t groundbreaking work, folks: pair dessert wine with a favorite blue, add the Bolivian bar from Santa Fe’s own Cacao Chocolate and Caramiel, a hazelnut-honey spread we can’t get enough of, and you’ve got yourself the most delightful of food comas. Salty, sweet, decadent, done.