Celebration Cheese: Matching Cheese and Sparkling Wine
Festive chilled fizz
Champagne and Brie
Champagne, that noble tipple, is a fitting partner for a cheese which was dubbed Le Roi des Fromages at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This also happens to be one of my favourite pairings, not least because it expresses three different concepts of matching cheese and booze.
Firstly, there is matching by terroir. It’s always worth trying any drinks made in the same geographical area as your cheese, and Brie is not just a sumptuous cheese, but a historical region of France, part of which was also in the medieval County of Champagne. As the saying goes: what grows together goes together.
Then there is mouthfeel. Brie will revel in a luxuriant, creamy texture, mixed with the effervescent foam of a well-made Champagne, creating a wonderful feeling – a real party in the mouth. I recommend having both at the same time for the full effect.
Finally, there’s the joyful discovery of complimentary flavours in both wine and cheese. My favourite Champagnes show a note of fresh yeast, such that when you open a bottle the air is suffused for a moment with the scent of toasted brioche. Brie, along with cream, pepper and lightly cooked cabbage, can also have some of that fresh yeast note. The wine and cheese are, almost literally, made for each other.
Prosecco and Parmesan
Traditionally, Prosecco is fermented in closed steel tanks and the yeast is filtered out when fermentation has finished. Instead of the fresh yeast flavour in a Champagne, crisp green apple, pear and aromatic notes of peach and apricot come to the fore. Much of this crisp refreshing sparkling wine is made in the extra-dry style – a little sweeter than brut, and this gentle sweetness enhances those fruity notes.
Step forward then one of the world’s greatest cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan in the anglophone world. Proper Parmesan, cut freshly from a great 35 kilo wheel and not, not, not the dusty grains shaken from a cardboard cylinder, has a firm yet fudgy texture, and a sweet aromatic flavour with notes of apple and tropical fruit, and a hint of burnt sugar. As much as this cheese is great on pasta, it should also be enjoyed on a cheeseboard with a glass of Prosecco whose sweet and fruity notes compliment those of the cheese.
Cava and Manchego
Instead of the typical Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, Cava – named for the caves or cellars in which it was traditionally aged, is made from three native Spanish grapes, Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. These grapes confer notes of tart green apple and lemon zest, a light toasty note is added from ageing in the bottle and the whole thing is rounded out beautifully with a light, creamy texture to the fizz.
We have not yet spoken about contrasting flavour, another key concept in matching wine and cheese, and for a quality Cava, an exciting contrast is provided in the form of that quintessentially Spanish cheese, Manchego. Like many hard sheep’s milk cheeses, Manchego can be startlingly sweet, with a sort of caramelised milk flavour like toffee. The tart citric notes in Cava are a lovely foil to this sweetness, accentuating and balancing them. A well-aged Manchego becomes more intense and can develop a spicy note, pleasingly balanced and a little calmed by the creamy texture of Spain’s very own distinctive sparkling wine.
English Sparkling Rosé and Goats Cheeses like Dorstone
The English have been making cheese for at least 6,000 years, and the knowledge that we are not all that bad at it is beginning to filter through to the rest of the world. Cheddar and Stilton have led the way, but there are by some counts at least 798 other English cheeses to try. One of my favourites is the delicately flavoured, mould ripened goat’s cheese Dorstone, made in Herefordshire. Like all goat’s milk cheese, a young Dorstone has a refreshing acidity that contrasts beautifully – you heard it here first – with raspberry jam.
Jam is not all that celebratory however, and in keeping with the season I introduce to you another product modestly shouldering its way onto the world stage, pink English sparkling wine. These rosés have summery notes of strawberries and raspberries, combined with a hint of freshly baked shortbread from some ageing on the lees. Taken together it’s a bit like having shortbread, jam and cream with just a hint of acidity to lift it and perhaps just a slight intriguing whiff of goat.
Sparkling Shiraz and Fresh Cheese
So far we have explored four concepts of matching, terroir, mouthfeel, contrasting and complimenting, but there is one overarching rule that precedes these, which is that both cheese and wine must be of the same intensity, so that one does not cancel out the other. It’s no use having a gentle floral Chenin Blanc with a big barnyardy Époisses – the poor wine will be completely drowned out by the rustic, unruly cheese.
But then rules are made to be broken. No one knows this better than the Australians, producers of robust sparkling Shiraz. The delightfully hefty wine shows notes of pepper, spice, leather and dark red fruits like blackberry and cherry. The mousse is very fine with scintillating pinpoint carbonation. Rule one dictates that a wine of this size be paired with an aged strong cheese like extra mature Cheddar or an aged Gouda, but I happen to like it with the most delicate family, fresh cheese: fromage frais in France or queso fresco in Spain.
At first it may seem that the Shiraz has wiped all trace of cheese from the palate but soon the acidity of a young cheese comes back, accentuating the fruit flavours in the wine while the soft cloudy texture combines excitingly with that sharp foam to form a fruity sparkling mousse, which can feel even brighter and even more celebratory than our first combination, Brie and Champagne, and is surprising enough to refresh the most jaded palate.
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