Add a little elegance to a summer afternoon with simple pairings of complex cheeses and delicious wine. The incredible selection of high-quality wine and cheese that is available today makes it more compelling than ever. Here are some straightforward tips for excellent food and wine pairings.
The first thing to do is find a reputable cheese shop with a knowledgeable staff. Try Antonelli’s Cheese Shop on Duval Street, Henri’s Cheese & Wine on South Lamar Boulevard, Central Market or Whole Foods Market. Not only do these places know their stuff, they specialize in helping customers find exactly what they want.
One of Austin’s shining stars in the cheese world is Cathy Strange, the global cheese buyer for Whole Foods Market. Strange has an incredible resume that is studded with accreditations such as membership in the Cheese Importers Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She serves as a judge for the American Cheese Society competition, the World Cheese Championships and the British Cheese Awards and is the new world president and an ambassador for the Guilde des Fromagers de Saint-Uguzon. The lady knows her cheese.
Strange leads a team of 147 certified cheese professionals at Whole Foods Markets. The company has a passion for excellence in cheese with a goal to have one certified cheese pro in every store. Currently, there are 206 employees seeking to become certified by studying things like cheese making and proper cheese pairings with wine and beer. These folks take exams every Thursday, testing their knowledge of the composition of milk, how to properly transport cheese, food safety and the microbiological nuances of cheese.
Why? So you don’t have to. With more than 700 types of cheese in the Whole Foods downtown store, it’s incredibly helpful to let the cheesemongers guide the experience. That’s exactly what we did with picking our perfect pairings for summer. Austin Woman suggested European white, rosé and red wines, and Strange expertly selected excellent European cheeses that will bring out the best in the wines.
Domaine Pichot, Vouvray 2012 with Mons Camembert
Domaine Pichot is a classic vouvray made with 100 percent chenin blanc. Unlike some vouvray wines from the Loire Valley of France that have a little residual sugar, this wine is dry with opulent floral aromas. Domaine Pichot has rich golden raisin, light pineapple and green apple flavors balanced with a hint of honey, chalky minerals, bright acid and a big, round finish that eases across the palate like a silk camisole. It sells for $17. Mons Camembert from the area of France north of Normandy is soft ripened in a traditional style. It has a distinctive smell of green cooked vegetables like Brussels sprouts or cabbage.
“That is a clear marker for Normandy-made cheese,” Strange says, noting the best way to enjoy the cheese. “The rind is edible, made with a penicillin mold that has a mushroomy, earthy flavor. Try the paste first so you don’t overwhelm your palate. This Camembert has tangy acidity that cuts through the butterfat. Chew the cheese, letting it coat your tongue. You will get flavors coming up the back of your mouth and in to the nose.”
This is a wine and cheese pairing made in heaven. The crisp acidity of the vouvray balances the creamy fattiness of the cheese. The wine mellows the vegetal qualities in the cheese, letting the salty grass and hay flavors open up while the earthy flavors of the Camembert brighten the fruit flavors in the wine. It’s a gorgeously choreographed dance on the tongue.
Miraval Rosé, Côtes de Provence 2013 and Capricho de Cabra
Miraval rosé is made in Southern France by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel fame in partnership with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who own the 1,200-acre estate.
“Angelina picked out the distinctive bottle,” Strange says.
This is a gorgeous Provençale rosé with beautiful pink cotton-candy color along with floral and pronounced fruit aromatics. The light-bodied wine tastes of fresh strawberries and lemon zest with a hint of spice on the finish. It is priced at $25. Strange recommends goat cheese with this delicate rosé.
“Rather than fresh chèvre, I picked an aged cheese,” she says. “It ripens from the outside in, leaving the middle of the paste, which is called chalk, firm and gets creamier next to the rind.”
Capricho de Cabra from Murcia, Spain, is made with milk from Murciana goats and is one of the highest protein cheeses in the world. It has a marvelous creaminess with a nutty, buttery cream flavor tinged with a slight brininess and a citrus finish. It’s a mild cheese that’s not very “goaty” and is a real crowd pleaser. The goat cheese is like a velvet pillow with the wine. The berry flavors of the rosé become more pronounced in the luscious creaminess, which also mutes the acidic citrus edge of the wine. This makes for a soft, sensual pairing.
Rollone Monferrato Rosso 2011 and Fourme d’Ambert
Rollone Monferrato Rosso comes from the cool climates of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. This fruity blend of 75 percent barbera and 25 percent pinot noir has a bright cherry and cedar aroma. Serve it with a slight chill to bring out the funky earthiness and mushroom essence layered on top of juicy cherry, dried strawberry and plum flavors. The mild tannin and high acid make it a particularly food-friendly red. It sells for $23 at Whole Foods.
Fourme d’Ambert is raw cow’s milk blue cheese from the Auvergne region of France. It is known to be one of the oldest cheeses in France, along with Roquefort. Blue cheeses take awhile to age and don’t start getting blue for four to six weeks. The proteins in blue are a little slower to break down, age slowly and get creamier the longer they age. Fourme d’Ambert is a natural rind cheese that is creamy and light.
It is a mild blue, not too spicy, and buttery with white mushroom flavors. With the wine, this mild blue brings out warm, raisin flavors. The cherries taste ripper and sweeter, which Strange describes as tasting “like a gourmet cherry lollipop.” The cheese enhances the aged earthiness of the wine yet lets the brightness of the acidity shine through.
Tips for buying and enjoying cheese
- Shop for cheese just how you shop for vegetables. Buy cheese close to the time you want to enjoy it. Don’t let it sit in your refrigerator too long. Knowledgeable cheesemongers at good shops can recommend the optimal ripeness of the cheese. Some cheeses are ready to eat today, some in a few days, but shouldn’t be kept more than that.
- Cheese made with cow’s milk is typically rich in gold color. In contrast, goat cheese is whiter in color, as the goats are better able to digest beta carotene.
- When entertaining, choose cheeses that are crowd-friendly like creamy gouda and sharp cheddar. Your cheesemonger can recommend varieties that are pungent, or not, to suit your taste.
- Pineapples, apples and pears are great with cheese because the acidity and texture lifts the creaminess of the cheese to clean the palate. Seasonally available tropical fruits and melons are also a great accompaniment to cheese, as they don’t overpower and don’t linger in the mouth.
- Take your cheese out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before guests arrive so it warms close to room temperature. Cheese is a fermented agricultural product, and the taste will evolve a little as it warms up.
- Serve nuts with the cheese. If you have blue or luscious cheeses, choose nuts with skins, like almonds. The bitterness of the skin will accentuate the cheese. If you are serving mild, creamy cheese, select Marcona almonds or other skinless nuts.
This story was originally written for and appears in the June issue of Austin Woman Magazine.
Disclosure: Whole Foods Market provided samples of the wine and cheese for this story.