Wine and cheese pairing is something that many people, including a surprising number of restaurants get wrong. I think a lot of that has to do with how we in the United States think about how we pair our cheeses. I have been to restaurants where they offer cheese plates based on region (e.g. American cheeses vs European cheeses), but there is such a wide variety of cheeses from each region that it makes it difficult to pair a single wine with the plate. Consumers often have it worse, unless there is a cheese shop around, or a grocery store with a good cheese selection and a knowledgable staff you are often relegated to choosing a pre-made cheese tray with no control over the types of cheeses used.
That is one of the things that Adam Centamore’s new book
Tasting Wine & Cheese
helps readers overcome: Understanding the different cheese taste profiles and how to match those profiles with the perfect wine. Adam steps through almost 50 different types of wine ranging from Albariño to Zinfandel and matches them with some excellent cheese selections. Each wine gets its own section and few cheese suggestions as well as some beautiful pictures to entice the reader to try the pairing (I have already visited igourment.com a couple of times to order some of the suggested cheeses).
One thing I especially liked about the book, especially during this time of holiday parties, was the specificity when it comes to sparkling and dessert wines. Adam breaks down 7 different sparkling wines and 8 different dessert wines, to ensure each one gets a perfect pairing.
If you host a lot of wine dinners and are looking for some great advice to ensure all of your pairings are perfect this is a great book. But, it is also a great book if you are like us, where sometimes you want to have a glass of wine and match it to a great cheese. Frankly, it also makes a really interesting Christmas present for wine lovers on your list.
Adam was nice enough to sit down with me to answer some questions, you can find the interview below:
- What first drew you to a career in wine, and how did that translate to a passion for wine and cheese pairing?
My interest in wine, and food in general, comes from growing up in a household where food was everything. When something good happened, we ate & drank. When something bad happened, we ate & drank even more. Food was (and is) such an important part of how my family interacts and relates to each other and life. This foundation has always kept me close to the kitchen, and given me an appreciation for the power of food.
I first fell in love with wine around fifteen years ago when I found myself let go from my job. With part of my severance I bought a case of wine, letting the salesman pick out a variety for me as I didn’t know much at the time. That night, I happened to open a bottle of oaky California Chardonnay to drink with my fish n’ chips. The buttery wine mixing with the crispy batter-fried fish and french fries completely knocked my socks off. It was nothing short of an epiphany. From that moment on, I paid close attention to how what I was eating interacted with what I was drinking. As I’m an avid cheese eater, it wasn’t long until my notebooks had more wine & cheese pairing notes in them than anything else. I kept coming back to those combinations, and revisiting them. Brunch, appetizers, dessert – it didn’t matter. Wine & cheese kept calling me, and I was all too happy to oblige the siren song. Years later, when I completed my cheese certification through Boston University’s Gastronomy program, I was fortunate enough to land an internship at Formaggio Kitchen, a world-renowned cheese shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turned into a full-time job, and from there my pairing acumen just exploded. I was pairing stuff with reckless abandon, and couldn’t have been happier. My fate was set.
- I was glad to see dessert wines featured in the book. As a diabetic, I tend to avoid traditionalist desserts, but a glass of Sauternes with a couple of slices of Roquefort is a perfect end to dinner. However, my experience has been that most Americans aren’t fans of dessert wines. Why do you think that is?
I think most Americans aren’t fans of dessert wines because they aren’t sure what to make of them or what to do with them. The idea of a sweet wine throws people off. History doesn’t help the cause, either. For decades, Americans were subjected to cheaply-made wines that were all sugar and no style. As a nation, we were turned off to the idea of dessert wines. We were doing it wrong.
In many European countries, they don’t do the cake & pie thing like we do. Meals often conclude with a cheese plate, or something small that has a sweetness to it, but not the sugar bombs we consume here. Dessert and fortified wines make total sense for them because they complement the foods they are being consumed with. Sauternes and Roquefort is an excellent example of this logic (and, might I add, a top-shelf favorite of mine). Roquefort is a full-bodied, aromatic, strong cheese with all the subtlety of a monster truck. It needs a wine that can stand up to its broad shoulders, and Sauternes is more than up for the task. Beyond being it’s equal in sheer horsepower, Sauternes also adds a rich honeyed note to the pairing that is just magical with the cheese’s minerality and saltiness. It’s a match made in heaven.
I think half the battle with American palates is getting them to simply try it. Just give it a shot. In many of my classes and seminars I serve some permutation of blue cheese and dessert wine, and I’m always amused by the number of people that haven’t tried it before, but totally love it. And, it extends past dessert wines, I think. Port, Sherry, Madeira – these wines all get the short end of the stick because many Americans think “wine” should be dry and usually red. People are missing out on many amazing combinations to eat, drink and enjoy. I’m hoping I can help!
- The book spends a couple of chapters discussing the basics of tasting and providing a high level overview of wine and cheese. These chapters are well-written and informative. But, how much do you feel people need to understand about wine and cheese before experimenting?
The short answer is not much, really. It doesn’t take any understanding at all to nibble on a piece of cheese, take a sip of wine, and see if you like it. And I think that’s wonderful. Anyone should feel free to just dive right in and see what happens. Be fearless! Now, some combinations will definitely work better together than others, but there are very few utter catastrophes to worry about (except big red wine with super-young, fresh goat cheese and apple slices. That’s a rough road to ride.) The value of understanding wine and cheese on a deeper level, however, is gaining an understanding why a particular combination did or didn’t work. As you become more familiar and comfortable with how the pairings come together, you can repeat outcomes you enjoyed and avoid ones you didn’t care for. From there, you can begin to explore using the principles you’ve learned, and come up with your own combinations (I’m on an iced green tea and Brie kick at the moment. Just lovely.) Understanding how pairings work empowers you to make better choices for your palate and gives you more enjoyment from it. But it’s not necessary.. Damn the torpedoes and full cheese ahead. That’s what I say!
- I am a fan of Bordeaux wines and I am curious as to how a blended wine impacts the pairing choices?
Blended wines are fantastic because they combine aspects of more than one grape, leading to a more complex and perhaps interesting flavor profile. For me, pairing cheeses with blended wines follows the same basic principles as pairing to a monovarietal (single grape) wine. It’s just that blended wines have ‘more instruments in the symphony’, if you will. That complexity may make it a bit more difficult to pick out specific aromas or flavors, but keep in mind the two (or more) grapes were chosen for blending because they have proven to work well together. They share general characteristics. It’s not like a winemaker is trying to force a blend of dark berry-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon and peachy Riesling into the same bottle, and that’s good news! Bordeaux is a great example. Cabernet Sauvignon often has characteristics of red cherry or blackberry, and Merlot usually displays plum or black cherry to some degree. While cherries and plums are not the same, they are both in the same flavor ballpark. There’s a strong probability a cheese that would sing with cherries will be great with plums and black cherry as well. Think of it this way – with a blend, find the broad-stroke characteristics and pair to that. Think “berries”, not “cherry”. Think “white fruit” not “apricots”. You’ll hit way more often than miss.
- There seems to be a revolution in cheese, with local creameries producing cheese in almost all 50 states (I guess it is really a return to the way things used to be). How would you recommend someone get started with exploring local cheeses?
It is absolutely wonderful to see the American cheese scene rejuvenated and kicking butt on the global stage. It really is a return to pre-world-war form for us. A lot of people have spent a lot of time and effort reestablishing “American cheese” as something more than just a block of deli cheese that comes in that weird yellowish color. I think technology plays a huge part in that. Not so much cheese-making droids or anything like that, but the incredible wealth of knowledge available to anyone that wants it. An avid cheese lover can easily find websites guiding them to local cheesemakers. Many states even have government-sponsored resources. For example, Massachusetts has a “wine & cheese trail” on their www.mass.gov site. It shows you who makes what, and where.. For someone looking to get started exploring local cheeses and wants a little adventure, check out a resource like that and gas the car up! The best way to explore local cheese is to go where it’s made. Meet the cheese maker. Meet the cows. See the farm. Most cheesemakers I’ve encountered are more than happy to share their passion and products directly with the consumer. For those that would prefer less travel, a great way to explore local cheeses is their local farmer’s market. Many cheese makers sell and market their cheeses themselves, and the farmer’s market is a prime opportunity to expose their cheeses to a large audience. Another excellent resource is your local cheese shop. If it’s a good one, they are aware of (and supportive of) the local cheese scene. If that fails, send me an email and I can give you all sorts of recommendations.