Earlier this month, at an exclusive event in a Philadelphia restaurant, Bistro Romano, two very different distributors met for a night of palette symphony. While one distributer, Vintus, focused on the aging and fermentation of grapes, the other distributer, DiBruno Brothers, focused on the aging and fermentation of milk. The harmony was undeniable to the small crowd of people who came for a lesson in building wine and cheese pairings. While the classic pairings have been around for centuries (Chianti Classico and Parmigiano Reggiano, or Chardonnay and Camembert, for example), the modernists of Generation X and Y have disrupted the old world norms and are more open to exploring contrasts instead of compliments.
Although the group was certainly ready to throw out the old guard rules to pairing, they did actually want to understand the fundamentals. As with any meal, the consumer should begin with more subtle flavors to wake the tongue and then work their way to heavier and more complex tastes and textures. This could not be more true for wine and cheese. Which brought us to our first basic rule— cleanse the palette! Throughout the day, taste buds take a beating. Coffee in the morning, quick lunch in the early afternoon, gum, snacking, talking; all of these contribute to the taste buds being overworked and therefore not able to pick up on subtle nuances. How to cleanse, you ask? BUBBLES! Champagne, Prosecco, or Sparkling Rose are a great way to get the taste buds to stand at attention. We elected to start with a Prosecco called Tenuta Filodora from the Veneto Region.
Once everyone was at the starting line, the tastings began. Since this group was very comfortable knocking norms, we decided to jump through a few countries rather than stay in one place. Wines were coming from Italy and France and the cheeses were coming from Italy, France, and Spain.
Pairing #1: Bucheron & Sancerre
The first pairing was a traditional goat’s milk cheese from the Loire Valley in France known as Bucheron. The cheese is aged for about two months and during that aging process, the textures become more pronounced. In the center is the recognizable crumbly texture of goat cheese but toward the outside, the texture is smooth and creamy which gives the mouth a round, lactic feel while finishing with that traditional salty, tangy linger. To pair, we went with a Sancerre from the same region which has a noticeably mineral finish. This comes from the chalky soil from the area, which gives the wine its “bone dry” profile. The subtleties of peach aromatics paired really well with the salinity of the goats’ milk and so it was a great starter for the night.
Pairing #2: Manchego & Arthemis
Our second pairing took us to La Mancha, Spain for a very special version of the, now common, Manchego. This sheep’s milk cheese is typically aged for about three months commercially, but we got our hands on a wheel that has been aged for a year and the flavor and texture were truly enhanced. As the cheese ages, the floral notes of the milk begin to become more apparent and the texture of the cheese becomes firmer and a little more crumbly than the younger version. The crowd did a bit of an eye roll when they heard Manchego because, at this point, it’s sold in every local grocery store. But when they tasted it, they instantly knew that this was not the run of the mill stuff. It tasted like the Spaniards intended, grassy, with overtones of hay and flora. As for the compliment, we paired the 12-month-old Manchego with a wine out of Puglia, Italy made from Fiano grapes called “Arthemis”. This bright, fruit-forward, white wine gave off a well-balanced acidity to cut through the richness of the sheep’s milk. There are notes of tropical fruit like papaya and kiwi that mash up perfectly with the earthy overtones of the Spanish icon. This was a real crowd-pleaser. The group really enjoyed seeing how a commodity cheese can be enhanced so significantly with just time.
Pairing #3: Idiazabal & Cabernet Sauvignon
We hopped down to Basque Country next to taste Manchego’s lesser-known cousin Idiazabal. Aged for two months, it is a young cheese and is the ultimate snack when paired with the famous Pintxos of the region. Made from raw sheep’s milk, it is salty with nutty undertones. The texture is semi-firm but creamy, which will coat the mouth when eaten. The tasters really enjoyed just saying the name (Ee-Dee-Ah-Zah-Bahl) and had appreciated seeing how different two sheep’s milk cheeses from Spain could be due to the type of sheep, their diet, and cheese aging technique. The paired wine for this one was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Toscana, Italy. The medium bodied Cab helped clear out the milky residue from the cheese with its tannins while leaving a lingering note of stone fruit like cherry with a hint of tobacco and licorice. The pairing was salty and sweet and delighted the guests. This was easily the most popular pairing of the evening.
Pairing #4: Sapore Del Piave & Amarone
Our last pairing involved another household name, but with a twist. The cheese is called Sapore Del Piave and it is a hard cow’s milk cheese from Northern Italy that has become well-known as a great substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano on pasta. It can also be enjoyed as a snack. The Sapore Del Piave is aged for about 16 months and gives off some incredible flavors. Think creamed caramel and almond milk with a salty, peanutty finish. This was the perfect compliment for our final wine of the night— Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico. Robust and loud, the Amarone has notes of prunes, bitter dark chocolate, as well as, a hint of vanilla on the nose.
As the wine and cheese grew stronger, so did the group’s understanding of these two types of fermentation and aging processes. The fundamental rules of wine and cheese pairing are still relevant today, but it is clear that the new breed of enthusiasts is more than willing to experiment new approaches.