Pairing wine and cheese never goes out of fashion for good reason
As a home cook and culinary pro, I hear a lot about what people don't like to eat -- broccoli, cilantro or tofu. But in all my years, I've never heard anyone say, "I don't like cheese."
In fact, we're hard-wired to enjoy cheese, a main component in our civilization's survival since civilization began. We've been making cheese since around 8,000 B.C., when humans shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, but we've been eating cheese millennia before that. Today, cheese is integral to societies with the highest life expectancy, adding essential nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B12 and twice as much protein as an egg to the diet.
Not too long ago, cheese in Chicago came from Wisconsin or an aerosol can. Now, dedicated cheese shops (such as Chicago's A Beautiful Rind) and specialty grocers offer international selections and guidance. But if you can slice, shrink wrap, open and wash fruit, you can create a cheese plate from your major grocer's cheese department.
Of course, the natural partner to cheese is wine, our first beverage, along with water and milk. You might call wine and cheese our primal wine and food experience.
In temples of gastronomy, cheese service may entail more than 20 selections, cared for by a certified cheese sommelier. At home, choose a wine you like and build a selection of one to three cheeses around it.
For Chardonnay lovers, there's cow's milk cheese. The key to this pairing is diacetyl, the flavor compound that gives cow's milk, butter and cheese their flavor. Diacetyl also occurs in most Chardonnay wines, created during a prevalent process called malolactic fermentation. And since Chardonnay and cow's milk cheese both lead in production, there are plenty of choices.
While any well-made Chardonnay pairs with the range of cow's milk cheese, here are some bull's-eyes: Low-to-no oak Chardonnay is best with mild, soft-ripened cheese, such as Brie. If you prefer oak-aged Chardonnay, turn to smoked cow's milk cheese, such as smoked Gouda. A ham and Swiss sandwich is tasty with your daily Chard on a picnic. For elegant decadence, pair a Blanc de Blancs Champagne (100% Chardonnay) with a triple crème (about 40% pure milk fat) like St. Andre or Explorateur.
For unoaked Chardonnay, ask your merchant for a French Macon, such as Macon Blanc, Thevenet et Fils (Burgundy, France). Try Chardonnay Raeburn (Russian River Valley, California) for balanced oakiness. To transform any event into a special occasion, ask your merchant for Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs, Pierre Moncuit (Champagne, France).
The sauvignon blanc and goat's milk cheese pairing is guided by the culinary saw "What grows together, goes together." Specifically, it's the sauvignon blanc-based wines of France's Loire Valley (such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé) with the Loire's famed goat's milk cheese (in French, chevre), including Valencay. On a global scale, there's sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and Chile to pair with international goat's milk cheese, like feta. Two wines to look for are: Sauvignon Blanc, "Leyda Valley," Boya (Anconcagua, Chile) and Sancerre, Langlois-Chateau (Loire Valley, France).
Blue cheese is a love-it-or-hate-it category but, paired with the right wine, receives consistent raves during my "Culinary Heaven: Wine and Cheese Pairing" class at The Chopping Block (see information below). Red wine with plump fruit and soft tannins, such as Syrah, Jeanne Gaillard, Terre de Mandrin (Rhone, France), pairs with the rich flavors and plentiful fat of blue cheese. The "opposites attract" magic of sweet and salt will amaze even those without a sweet tooth, with pairings including sweeter riesling, Port or French Sauternes with a blue's high salt content. A sweet sparkler such as Moscato d'Asti, Sarracco (Piedmont, Italy) adds another dimension of scrubbing bubbles, refreshing the palate.
You can test these pairings and decide on your favorites during "Culinary Heaven: Wine and Cheese Pairing" from 6-7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, at The Chopping Block, 4747 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. We'll mix and match five prominent cheese styles with five international wines, along with tips for your own wine and cheese service. Seating is limited, and registration is required. For information and to register, visit thechoppingblock.com.
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at email@example.com.