I’ve done a fair few cheese and wine tastings in my time but none quite as challenging as the one I did at the RAW natural wine fair last year matching natural wine with unpasteurised cheese.
Why should this be especially difficult? Well, both are supremeley unpredictable. Unpasteurised cheese can and does change from batch to batch depending on the time of year. Natural wine can taste different from bottle to bottle - and, if you follow the biodynamic calendar - from day to day.
Unpasteurised cheeses tend to be more powerful in flavour than their pasteurised counterparts while natural wines tend to be lower in alcohol than many conventional wines. Less oaky too though which can be a boon with cheese.
I started with a couple of relatively easy pairings. an ash-coated Fromage Cathare goats cheese with a young crisp white - a 2012 Vignaioli Contra Soarda Vespiaolo from the The Winemakers Club. I normally look to Sauvignon Blanc with goats cheese but this had exactly the crisp, citrussy flavours I was looking for.
Next one of my favourite cheeses to pair with wine - Trethowan’s Dairy Gorwydd Caerphilly with a 2010 white burgundy Mâcon Cruzille Blanc Les Genièvrières from Domaine Guillot Broux (Aubert & Mascoli) The creaminess and fresh acidity of the burgundy was perfect with the delicately mushroomy cheese - my advice was to eat the rind as well which accentuated the mushroom flavour. We didn’t take a vote but I got the impression this was the best pairing for most of those present.
Next a more challenging proposition - a Coulommiers (Brie-style cheese) from Hervé Mons - not too far gone but quite ripe and buttery. I’ve generally found that youngish wines with ripe berry fruit work well with Brie but the 2011 Pascal Lambert Chinon (Aubert & Mascoli), a Cabernet Franc from the Loire, was just a bit too light to cope with the richness of the cheese. My normal go-to would be something like a New Zealand pinot noir - maybe it needed a natural wine of comparable intensity, if not sweetness. Champagne (or sparkling wine) is another good option.
I was actually more worried whether the next pairing would work - a well matured, tangy Hafod cheddar from Wales and a full bodied red - Vigna del Barbote, colli Tortonese 2008 from Valli Unite from the Ottolenghi wine list but it went beautifully due to the maturity of the wine and softness of the tannins. It would have been the wine to choose if you were looking for a wine to go with the whole cheeseboard and had the virtue of being the sort of wine you would be likely to drink with the main course.
For the next cheese - a washed rind sheeps’ cheese called St James I’d picked an orange wine - the La castellada ribolla Gialla 2007 from the Collio region (from Pacta Connect. As you can see from the picture though, the cheese was so rich and gooey it really overwhelmed the wine as I think it would have any wine, orange or not. I think you actually needed something a good deal stronger - maybe an eau de vie or even a gin (I’ve successfully paired genever with washed rind cheeses) or something totally different like a Belgian Trappist ale such as Chimay Bleu. The wine would have been better with a mature sheeps cheese like an aged Pecorino or a Manchego, I reckon.
And finally a blue, a Persillé de Beaujolais (above) which turned out not to be too fearsome but quite mellow - much like a Fourme d’Ambert. I overlooked the obvious pairing of Beaujolais in favour of a wine with a touch of sweetness - a gorgeous 2009 Vouvray from Clos de la Meslerie (Dynamic Vines). I actually thought the two were rather good together but not sure I carried the audience with me and the wine probably deserved a slightly more flattering partner or indeed be allowed to shine on its own.
So, as usual with wine and cheese, mixed results. I can’t claim that natural wines brought an extra dimension to the pairings - some worked, some didn't, just as with conventional wines - and remain firmly of the opinion that with cheese you need to look beyond just wine. Interesting, though.
Thanks to Hervé Mons and Neals Yard for the cheeses and Aubert & Mascoli, Dynamic Vines, Ottolenghi, Pacta Connect and Winemakers Club - all exhibitors at the RAW fair - for the wines