Cheese and wine. Bit of a no-brainer, most people would think. Goes together like bacon and eggs or strawberries and cream, doesn’t it? Well, er, no . . . As any of you who have had a much-cherished wine ruined by a mouthful of well-matured artisanal cheese will know from bitter experience, it isn’t the blissful marriage it’s made out to be.
So, are there any red wines that will cope? And if not, what are the alternatives? Are there cheeses that will flatter a fine wine and can you gather enough of them together to put on a cheeseboard?
We assembled a panel of the gastronomical great and the good to tackle the challenge: Jeremy Lee, executive chef of the Blueprint Cafe and a regular judge at the British Cheese Awards; Gearoid Devaney, head sommelier at Tom Aikens; Johnny Walker, Director of Wine and Spirits for the Malmaison hotel group; Christophe Demeyer of The Greenhouse (where the tasting was also held), London’s only cheese sommelier; two other cheese experts, Chris George of Neal’s Yard and Jeremy Bowen of Paxton & Whitfield from whom we bought the cheese and, representing the home team at Decanter, Brian St Pierre, Guy Woodward, Christelle Guibert and myself.
First we decided to tackle a typical British cheeseboard - the kind that most of us would instinctively put together over the holiday period. It included a slice of goats cheese log, a mature Camembert, an oozy Epoisses, an 18 month old Montgomery Cheddar and a Cropwell Bishop Stilton. With it we lined up the kind of wines that you’d be inclined to have on the festive table - a 1er cru Gevrey Chambertin from Joseph Drouhin, a 1996 Chateau Langoa Barton, the 2000 Cote Rotie Les Jumelles from Paul Jaboulet, an ‘83 vintage port from Fonseca and a 1997 Chateau Haut-Grillon Sauternes.
As anticipated it wasn’t the most hedonistic of experiences with most of the reds struggling to hold their own and the cheeses trampling all over them. The surprise star of this initial round was not the port but the Sauternes, a surprisingly seductive match for the Stilton, and which easily outstripped the best performing red (the Cote Rotie)
Our panel were less impressed by the cheese selection with the goats cheese and the camembert getting a firm thumbs down. “I just think it (Camembert) shouldn’t be on a cheeseboard” said Jeremy Lee. The Stilton and Epoisses were also generally regarded as too strong to finish what may have already been a heavy meal.
The next stage was to introduce a range of alternative cheeses that we felt might fare better than the more obvious candidates we’d chosen: an ash-coated Tymsboro, an unpasteurised goats cheese from Somerset, instead of the ‘buche’; a Tunworth, a bloomy-rinded cheese from Hampshire and a White Lake, an unpasteurised goats milk cheese from Somerset, both substitutes for Camembert; an Oxford Isis, a washed rind cheese that provided a less pungent alternative to the Epoisses; a creamy Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, a milder alternative to the Montgomery cheddar and two alternative blues, a Barkham Blue from Berkshire and a Harbourne Blue, a goats milk blue from Devon. We also introduced a sheep’s milk cheese on the basis that they tend to be more wine-friendly, a Crockhamdale from Kent
We also gave our panel free rein to try a wider range of wines, introducing some new world reds (a Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot, a Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz, both 2002s and an older Bridgewater shiraz), a 2001 Tahon de Tobelos Rioja Reserva, a Santa Sofie Amarone 2001, a younger claret the Chateau Haut-Marbuzet St Estephe 2001, a 2002 Alsace Grand Cru riesling from Paul Blanck, a 10 year old tawny port from Marks and Spencer and a 1999 Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 6 puttonoyos
Apart from the cheddar, the cheeses went down a great deal better than the original selection with the creamy Barkham Blue and the sheeps’ milk Crockhamdale being regarded as particularly wine-friendly. But the new reds fared only marginally better than the original selection, with only the Amarone and Rioja making a decent showing. Again the sweetest wine - the Tokaji - was the star with the riesling providing welcome, palate-cleansing relief for some tasters.
So - a rout for the sweet wines then. Which is fine but for the fact that many really do prefer to finish a meal with a red. If that’s the case we recommend you follow Jeremy Bowen’s advice and pick just three not too pungently flavoured cheeses for it to cope with. As Gearoid Devaney put it. “If you’ve had a couple of glasses of hefty claret I don’t think you’re going to be that upset finishing with a Stilton and a glass of fine red.” There’s a lot to be said for palate fatigue . . .
Best wine for cheese
A close call between the Chateau Haut-Grillon Sauternes 1997 and the Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 6 puttonyos, with the Sauternes just edging it.
Best red for cheese
Paul Jaboulet Les Jumelles, Cote Rotie 2000. Best, it has to be said, of a bunch of fine wines that seriously underperformed with top quality cheese
Best individual matches
Stilton and Sauternes
The only combination on which the panel almost unanimously agreed - outranking port and stilton by a significant margin
Montgomery cheddar and Fonseca ‘83 vintage port
Another surprise combination, the Montgomery proved just as good a match for the port as we expected the stilton to be, just shading it over the Cote Rotie
Epoisses and Sauternes
Third shock of the tasting. We never expected Sauternes to shine with such a pungent cheese - or indeed the Cote Rotie - which ran it a close second
Tokaji and Barkham Blue
The new port and stilton? A great combination. The Tokaji also went really well with the Harbourne Blue and might have been better still if it had had ‘a few less putts’ as Johnny Walker put it.
Best bets for a cheeseboard
Montgomery Cheddar, Barkham Blue and Crockhamdale
The idea of a cheeseboard without familiar favourites might outrage some but tough it out! This selection manages to be both mellow and flavoursome enough to keep both the cheese enthusiast and the wine lover happy.
The ones that got away . . .
There was general agreement that whites would have done rather better than many of the reds we fielded but as Chris George pointed out “It’s hard to go back to white at the end of the meal” Favoured candidates would have been a slightly sweeter riesling or an Alsace pinot gris. There was also general agreement that a slightly richer sherry might have worked (Gearoid Devaney put the case for a Palo Cortado) and that a better tawny would have outperformed our high street 10 year old from Marks and Spencer. And Johnny Walker put the case for ‘rough-edged reds’ like Cabernet Franc and Barbera.
This article was first published in the January 2007 edition of Decanter.