Flash in the Pan 

Simple rules for wine and cheese

The gods of the ancients didn’t drink milk or soda pop. Only wine, the glorious result of reverent craft, possesses the heavenly stature to satisfy holy occasions. And ideally, eating should always qualify as one of them.

Wine makes a good meal complete. In the right combination, it can enhance and enliven the flavors of the food. But not all pairings are as foolproof as bloody meat with blood-red wine. The mating of wine and cheese, for example—a classic and classy combination—can be the stuff of confusion, mystique, disagreement, and stress. In a word, hell.

It’s a realm where science and art commingle with luck, and where ultimately, success comes down to personal factors, your history, physiology, and mood playing key roles in what tastes good to you.

But while the details of wine/cheese pairing will vary from person to person, there are some common laws at work underneath it all. For your ease of consumption, I’ve packaged some of these principles into bite-sized chunks of wine/cheese doctrine and practice. While some of these nuggets might seem a little cheesy, they’ll all go down easier with a swig of wine. Which wine? Well, that is the question, as you embark on your personal, merry matchmaking journey of discovery.

Acid loves fat. This is the most important thing to know here: Acidic foods eaten with fatty foods make each other taste better. Whether in the context of lemon butter, oil and vinegar, tomato and mayo, wine and meat, wine and cheese, ketchup and fries - you name it: When acid and fat converge to dance in your mouth, it rules.

Young wine loves cheese. It turns out that one of the main reasons cheese and wine go together—beyond the acid/fat dance—is that cheese can help mask the taste of under-aged wine. The astringent flavor of some young red wines comes from tannins, which are plant-based molecules derived primarily from grape seeds, peels, and stems. Over time, these tannins break down and become part of the wine’s unique and complex terroir (a French word to describe the part of a wine’s flavor that’s rooted in the landscape in which the wine was produced). Because tannins break down over time, many under-aged wines have higher tannin concentrations than desired. The fat in the cheese protects your mouth from the astringent tannins.

Terroir loves company. Pairing a wine with a cheese from the same region will allow the respective terroires of the wine and the cheese to share the secrets of their home ground. Ask anyone from France.

Acid likes acid. Some people insist that cheese of high acid content—goat cheeses are generally very acidic—should be paired with a wine of similarly high acidity, like a Sauvignon Blanc.

Bad wine loves cheese. It turns out that cheese masks more than just tannins. In research reported in New Scientist, trained wine tasters were presented with cheap and expensive versions of four different varieties of wine. The tasters evaluated the strength of various flavors and aromas in each wine—both alone and when preceded by eight different cheeses. They found that cheese suppressed berry and oak flavors, as well as sourness and astringency. Only certain “buttery” aromas were enhanced by cheese, probably because cheese itself contains the molecule responsible for a buttery wine aroma. Strong cheeses suppressed flavors more than milder cheeses, but flavors of all wines were suppressed.

Hildegarde Heymann of UC Davis, co-Principal Investigator of the study, suggests that proteins in the cheese may bind to flavor molecules in the wine, or that fat from the cheese may coat the mouth, deadening the tasters’ perception of the wines’ flavors.

So even while the acid of the wine tastes generally good as it cuts through the fatty coating on your mouth, that same coating might prevent you from perceiving the wine’s more subtle flavors. You would get, according to Hildegarde and company, virtually the same pleasure from a lesser wine.

Well if that’s the case, then one could conclude it would make sense to not waste your money on fine wine when pairing it with cheese. Better to spend your money on the cheese.

Of course, there are those who would call Hildergarde’s conclusions total balderdash—foodies and snobs who swear that a good cheese will taste better with a fine wine than a cheap one, and vice-versa.

To find out where you stand, we suggest you experiment at home. Start with a good cheese, say, a Saint Nectaire, and pair it with some cheap cabernet, and then with a good Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. See what happens. If you can taste the difference, then delving further into the realm of pairing would probably be worth your while. If you can’t taste the difference, then you probably know all you need to know about wine and cheese.


Ask Chef Boy Ari: Venison-hugger finds tenderness

Q: Ari,

Last year’s deer was the best ever.The previous year’s was tasty, but tough, so I asked my friends Dom Martin and Matt Cornette from the Red Bird what we could do about it.

After the harvest, I couldn’t get the carcass (plus my family) into my Loyale in one piece. So we cut the buck in half right above the back haunches.

When I read last weeks Q & A, I realized that since I’d hung this deer by both the front legs and the Achilles tendons, I was providing a stretch to each of the four quarters.

Anyway, Dom recommended hanging the deer for as long as possible for maximum tenderness, so we let him swing a while.  After a week, poking the large muscles left a dent that foreshadowed an end to toughness. A week later, the meat was frozen, but the color was deepening. I was finding excuses to be in the garage. Sometimes my wife would catch me with my arms wrapped around the frozen treasure, whispering softly…”


A: Dear venison-hugger,

Well, that’s probably enough. Suffice it to say the meat was extremely tender—“venison pudding” according to letter writer Nate “carcass whisperer” Biehl, after it was expertly deconstructed by Dom “pudding butcher” Martin.

Last week my friend Postal went hunting. His game-damage hunting permit allowed him to shoot three does in an irrigated field, which he did that hot September afternoon. Given the heat, Postal wasn’t inclined to let them hang, and had them all cut up the next day. “They’ll age in the freezer,” he said.

I went home with a chunk, which I fried in olive oil, salt and pepper, tossed with minced garlic and served with mayonnaise. Yeah, it was chewy, but as tasty a deer as I’ve ever sunk my teeth into, and with red wine flowing I was happy to keep chewing. 

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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