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April 3, 2011

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Revisiting historic wine & cheese combinations

AFTER a hectic tour of four Chinese cities in a week and a blur of wines events, this weekend I get to relax a bit and prepare for a trip to Italy. Inevitably when I think of Italy, I think of wine and cheese.

The relationship of wines and cheese is one of the most synergistic in the gourmet world. Cheese is one of the great traditions in Western culinary culture. In the Middle East, cheese was already an important part of the ancient Sumerian diet 4000 years before the birth of Christ. The Romans brought the art of making cheeses to new heights and many of the styles of cheeses we enjoy today were perfected in the Middle Ages by monks. Throughout this historic evolution, cheese has been inseparable from wine.

As I mentioned in this column about two years ago, there are a few simple rules to follow when matching wines and cheese. Soft creamy cheeses are best with a wide range of fresh, dry white and red wines. Acidic cheeses such as goat cheese pair well with similarly acidic wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albarino, while hard cheeses beg for fairly robust tannic reds. Very salty or stinky cheeses need to be offset by palate-soothing sweet wines. Finally, if you reach a state of total confusion, the safest option is to pair a cheese from a certain region with a wine from the same area.

The serving temperature of wines varies according to the wine type, but its best to serve most cheeses at room temperature. By doing so, it fully brings out the flavors of the cheese. Serving cold cheese straight out of the refrigerator will mask the pleasurable flavor nuances and textures. There are thousands of wonderful wine and cheese combinations so I'll keep my suggestions to those readily available in Shanghai that are sure to please differing palates.


The strongest cheeses are usually an acquired taste so for my Chinese friends who didn't grow up with cheeses I often suggest a mild soft cheese that's easy to appreciate. One of the most friendly and mild cheeses is buffalo mozzarella. This cheese is best enjoyed young and fresh and pairs beautifully with light, dry Italian whites or other similar white wines. If you want a red wine then I suggest picking an acidic young Chianti or light-to-medium body, young Pinot Noir. Other mild cheeses that go nicely with these wines and are suitable for new palates are an Italian Fontina, French Brie or Camembert and Greek feta.

Hard & Semi-hard

Shanghai markets offer a growing number of wonderful hard cheeses from abroad. There are few experiences more sublime than a having a flavorful, aged hard cheese with the proper red wine. Whether you're enjoying an Italian archetypal hard cheese such as Parmesan Reggiano or other hard cheeses such as French raclette, Norwegian Jarlsberg or a sharp Cheddar pick a flavorful Sangiovese, Tempranillo or right bank Bordeaux and your taste buds shall be gracefully rewarded. If flavorful hard cheeses are too big a step for you, then try a semi-hard cheese that's slightly less pungent like a Dutch Gouda or American Monterey Jack.

Just plain stinky

Many people are simply blown away by the pungent tastes and aromas of stinky cheeses, so the best way to offset these extreme sensations is to drink a sweet wine. The sweetness and fruitiness of the wines balance the strong flavors of the cheese and refresh the palate. Perfect combinations include French Roquefort cheese with any good Sauternes or Barsac noble-rot sweet wine and also Italian Gorgonzola cheese with a big, ripe and moderately sweet Amarone red wine from Veneto. The finest stinky cheeses also showcase their best qualities when enjoyed with sweet fortified wines such as an aged Tawny Port or Pedro Ximenez Sherry.


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