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Our brilliant blues

November 30, 2005|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

STILTON and Port -- they go together like, well, like Roquefort and Sauternes. They're the Astaire and Rogers of food and wine pairings. They're both fabulous on their own, but put them together, and they swing.

It's not often, though, that most people happen to have a vintage Port handy when the cheese platter comes around. More likely, you'll have a bit of red wine left in your glass. Chances are the red wine will be great with that Petit Basque or that Camembert. But take a sip of red wine after tasting a blue cheese, and yeek! The wine goes metallic and weird in the mouth.

Salty, rich, tangy and assertive, blue cheeses demand something different. Something sweet to balance the salt. Something intense to stand up to the power of the cheese.

But blues don't want just any old sweet wine. What works is a wine with backbone, with depth or with lively acid -- in any case a wine with some complexity.

The wine can't be too delicate, or the cheese will overwhelm it. Floral doesn't work; it can't be too pretty or the blue cheese will just laugh at it. So forget apricot-scented Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise; don't even think about a Gewurtztraminer.

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Delightful surprises

DOES that mean only a vintage Port or Sauternes will do? On the contrary. A couple of weeks tasting American blue cheeses with stickies -- sweet dessert wines -- from around the world turned up some fabulous unexpected matches. Sweet red dessert wines from Banyuls, France, tawny Ports, sweet white Cotes de Bergeracs and intriguing Tokajis from Hungary all positively dance on the palate with a good farmstead blue. And it's a good thing too because a great Sauternes or a vintage Port that's ready to drink can easily break the bank, whereas many of these wines are relative bargains.

Tawny Port is one of the great underrated wines of the world. To understand what it is, first consider what it's not: vintage Port -- Portugal's most famous fortified wine. Vintage Port is only "declared" (bottled) in the best vintages. It's aged in wood for two or three years, then aged in the bottle for a decade or three. It's deep ruby in color, with wonderful deep fruit flavors. Right now you can buy Port from the 2003 vintage, but it's nowhere near ready to drink.

Tawny Port, on the other hand, is aged in wood for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. By the time it's 30 or 40 years old, it takes on rich caramel, vanilla and nut flavors, and a tawny brown color.

Though an older tawny would be too intensely rich and unctuous to work with blue cheeses, a 10-year-old tawny still has enough fruit to make it a terrific match with American farmstead -- or any other good blues. The best ones are also terrific on their own -- rich and complex, yet light enough to work as aperitifs.

You can pick up wonderful 10-year-old tawnies from top houses for about $35. From France, east of Bordeaux, the Bergerac region produces some wonderful dessert wines that are cousins of Sauternes, including those from the up-and-coming village of Monbazillac. Deeply golden and aromatic, Monbazillac is, like Sauternes, made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes Muscadelle grapes. In that neck of the woods, Monbazillac is a favorite aperitif, eaten, if at all possible, with foie gras. But Monbazillac and other sweet white Cotes de Bergerac wines are fabulous with blue cheese. Since they're little known in the U.S., they can be super bargains.

So can Banyuls, an unusual, sweet red wine that's grown on steeply terraced vineyards near the town of Collioure, just north of the Spanish border next to the Mediterranean.

Made primarily from late-harvested Grenache Noir grapes, Banyuls is known as France's best vin doux naturel, a wine to which a spirit has been added to stop the fermentation, thereby retaining sweetness. Banyuls wines have intense macerated red-fruit flavors and a wonderful funkiness known as rancio -- both of which make them spectacular, if unexpected, partners for blue cheese. The combination adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

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Tremendous finesse

AND so on to Hungary. Hungary? One of the world's greatest dessert wines comes from Tokaj-Hegyalja, a region of northwest Hungary. Tokaji (pronounced tok-eye-ee) is a late-harvest wine made mostly from the Furmint and Harslevelu grape varieties. Tokaji Aszu is Tokaji affected with a fungus known as noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. It's the same fungus that gives the best Sauternes its wonderful funkiness and deep complexity, and it's what makes Sauternes and Tokaji such a great match with blue cheeses.

What's special about Tokaji Aszu is that the botrytis-affected grapes are separated from the rest and kneaded to a sweet paste, then added into the fermented wine to make wines of a calibrated sweetness -- from three to six "puttonyos," six being the sweetest. Puttonyo refers to containers traditionally used to measure the paste.

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