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White wine and cheese: It's a beautiful friendship

A bold Muenster or Roquefort bumps up hard against a red, but swoons when paired with the right white.

July 25, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

I'D always saved the last of my Burgundy or Brunello di Montalcino to savor with the cheese at the end of the meal, until one afternoon years ago, at the celebrated Michelin three-star restaurant Auberge de l'IIl in Illhaeusern, France, the sommelier proposed pouring white wines for the entire meal. I was surprised but followed his lead as he poured a succession of superb Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Tokay Pinot Gris. I expected the late harvest Tokay Pinot Gris would be a beautiful match with the goose liver, but never imagined a Gewürztraminer would hold its own against a Muenster.

Now, Alsace doesn't produce wimpy cheeses. The pride and glory of the cheese road that threads its way through the Vosges Mountains is farmhouse Muenster, a washed-rind cow's milk cheese with impressive pungency and rascally aromas. In Alsace, it's usually served so ripe it's almost running off the plate.

Delving into such a cheese with a red, even a soft, supple Pinot Noir, is generally not a successful experiment: Somehow the combination of the cheese and wine makes not music in your mouth but soap. But with a white wine, particularly one from the region where the cheese was made, with a beautiful Gewürztraminer or Tokay Pinot Gris from a grand cru vineyard and a top producer, Muenster lays down its odoriferous hackles and practically purrs.

The wine seems to enhance the cheese, and vice versa, which is precisely what you want in a wine and cheese match. This phenomenon is not just confined to Muenster and wines from Alsace. Certainly, relatively mild, aged cheeses such as pecorino Toscano or an aged Gouda get along just fine with a red. But the glorious fat, ripe cheeses of this world, as well as just about every goat cheese and pungent, salty blue, will show their stuff better with a white wine than with a red.

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Pairing by location

"I actually prefer white wine with cheese for the most part," says Chris Meeske, former longtime sommelier at Patina and now owner of Mission Wines in South Pasadena. At the end of a meal, he says, if you still have some white and red left in the bottles, it makes sense to experiment, trying the different wines against the different cheeses. But if he had to suggest just one wine, it would be a white.

To understand how the most serendipitous wine pairings work, it helps to look at what's traditional in wine and cheese regions. "If you took a map of France and looked at which cheeses and wines are made where, you'd see that the wines and the cheeses of each region go hand in hand," says Norbert Wabnig, owner of the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. "A number of wonderful white wines are made in the Loire Valley where tons of goat cheese is made. For me, a Sancerre or a Vouvray and goat cheese just naturally make sense together."

Wine bars all over Paris offer the always pleasing combination of Sauvignon Blanc with either a log of the fresh white stuff rolled in ashes, or those wizened crottins de Chavignol about the size of marshmallows. The best are aged to an old ivory, while retaining a nugget of chalky white at the center. The taste is strong and undeniably goaty: delicious with that cool, grassy wine.

"Whites tend to be more delicate in a way, and I think they allow the cheese to express itself better," Meeske says.

Whites with good acid, such as a Sancerre or something from the Jura, also work with goat cheeses, says Andrew Steiner, sommelier and cheese guru at the Foundry on Melrose. With bloomy rind cheeses, he likes Jurançon wines, with their appealing combination of sweetness and lemony acidity. Or an off-dry Vouvray, a Chenin Blanc with some acidity to it.

With white wines that are a little sweeter, like Gewürztraminer from Alsace, think Muenster, he counsels. Sweet wines such as a good Tokaji or Sauternes go extremely well with a salty blue, like a good Roquefort.

"The easiest match is a cloyingly sweet white wine with a salty cheese, like a Sauternes with Roquefort," Steiner says. "The problem is that if you're serving four or five cheeses, no way they're all going to work with the Sauternes."

What does? Steiner has found Champagne to be a fantastic choice, not only with Roquefort, but with lots of different kinds of cheeses. "Of all the wines, Champagne is the most versatile with cheese," he says. "The bubbles work great with brie and triple crèmes and other bloomy rind cheeses with a high fat content. And it's no small coincidence," he says, "that the cheeses from Champagne seem to be of that type." Steiner's also been known to pour a Spanish cava with the cheese course.

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Bubbly with brie

For Wabnig, a really sublime match is Champagne with triple crème cheeses. His favorites of the moment are those from Pierre Robert and Jean Grogne.

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