The other evening I had an interesting session with a few food bloggers matching Davidstow cheddar for which I’d been asked to come up with some drink pairings*. My task was to talk about the wine. The company’s Head Grader Mark Pitts-Tucker brought along a couple of Cornish ales - Sharp’s Doombar and St Austell Tribute.
I’d say both went equally well but it clarified in my mind when you might go for beer and when for wine. If you’re having the cheese as a classic English ploughman’s you’re probably going to be tucking into some chutney, pickles or raw onions - all ingredients that are pretty unfriendly to wine but which tend to cue in perfectly with a traditional British ale. The same would go for a cheese and pickle sandwich or a cheese and onion pasty.
If on the other hand you had some fresh for dried fruit with the cheese or were nibbling it after a main course then wine - or a fortified wine like sherry - would probably be the better option. And that needn’t necessarily be red wine, even though that’s what most people associate with cheese.
One of our star pairings the other night was an oaked Australian Chardonnay. The oak chimed in beautifully with the older of the two samples, the 20 month old ‘Crackler’ but the peachy fruit in the Chardonnay also added a lovely note of freshness to the combination.
We also tried three different reds, none of which had powerful tannins (the attribute in red wine that tends to make it clash with cheese): a fruity Australian Shiraz-Cabernet, a youngish Rioja crianza which was also quite fruity and a more rustic Vacquéyras from the Rhône.
The Rioja worked the least well: it was fine but neither the cheese or the wine enhanced the other (I suspect a 'reserva' would have worked better. The fruity Australian red was delicious with the younger, creamier 'Classic' cheddar which is aged for 13 months. The Vacquéyras - my favourite red of the line-up - which had some really delicious autumnal plummy flavours went best with that too.
The final pairing was another revelation: a very dry amontillado sherry - Valdespino Contrabandista - which was also best with the younger cheese which brought out some wonderfully rich, raisiny flavours in the wine.
What to take away from all of this? Well, for a start that you shouldn’t feel inhibited about serving Chardonnay or a good sherry with your cheddar instead of the more usual port. And that a mellow, creamy cheddar may be a more easy-going partner for a red than a more mature full flavoured one (I wouldn’t stress too much about the exact age of the cheese - think more about the style in which it is made)
On the basis of past experience I’d also recommend port, Madeira and a medium-dry cider with cheddar even though we didn’t try any of those on the night (seven different drinks being quite enough for one sitting!)
* on a paid-for basis, just in the interests of transparency!