Most perfect wine and food pairings are products of proximity. Chilled saline oysters and a crisp, cool Muscadet; a delicate fino sherry with warm, toasted almonds, or a robust, tarry Barolo with earthy black truffles all speak volumes about the innate, superior logic of terroir. It's just like that old chestnut, what grows together goes together.
Yet, every rule has its exceptions, and these often prove to be even more interesting than the tenets they upset. Consider, for example Port and Stilton.
Possibly one of the most famous and enduring pairings of all time (not to mention one of the most sublime) the two only met because of a twist in political history. The British developed an interest in Portuguese wines to spite the French. When bottles of their bounty reached the home shores (fortified against the ocean voyage with a stiff dose of brandy), with typical self-importance, the British didn't look back to Portugal for ideas of how to pair it. Instead, they looked to the superb cheese making tradition of their own countryside. Thus one of the great long distance romances began: syrupy sweet Portuguese wine and salty, nutlike English Stilton.
But while Stilton may arguably be the best cheese to nibble with a glass of Port, it's not the only one. Other varieties - some of even farther-flung provenance - can also pair well, including those much closer to home: American artisanal cheeses. American cheese making has a long and venerable history (see sidebar), and has gone through a particular renaissance of late. There's no doubt that these cheeses deserve to be enjoyed in the company of excellent wine. So to further explore this possibility, W&S held a Port and American artisanal cheese tasting, with guidance from cheese expert Max McCalman.
McCalman is the maitre fromager at Picholine restaurant in New York City and the author of The Cheese Plate (Clarkson Potter, 2002). If pairing cheese and wine wasn't part of his profession, it would simply be his addiction, and there are few others as passionate and knowledgeable in the field.
Port, he explained, has a natural affinity for cheese because of the initial contrast of flavors on the palate.
"Sweetness is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Port," said McCalman "and since cheese is generally salty, it harmonizes."
The flavor profiles of both salty cheese and sweet wines, while strong enough to stand up to one another, fall on opposite ends of the taste spectrum, acting as complements. That's why other dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are commonly matched with pungent, salty cheeses like Roquefort, and this is of course at the heart of the Port-and-Stilton marriage as well (and this also held true for other blue cheeses and vintage Ports in our tasting, see sidebar/box).
The reverse can also be true. A very subtle cheese will be flattened into oblivion by a heady glass of Port, and vice versa. So a good rule of thumb is to pair fragile cheeses with softer wines, such as a tender, fresh cheese with a citrus-caramel nuanced white Port. The contrasting salty/sweet flavors will be there, but in a gentler way.
Since cheese is generally a lot more intense than wine, in an unsuccessful pairing, it's usually the wine that suffers most (as McCalman says, "people always blame the cheese"). Even a dense, inky, vintage-style Port with loads of berry and cassis could lose its fruity character when confronted with a particularly funky blue, for example.
Contrasting flavor is just one part of the pairing equation. Another element is acidity. With pH levels, McCalman advises, look for similarities, such as matching a tangy cheese with a fairly lively wine (think of fresh goat cheese and Sancerre). In terms of Port, this would mean partnering a young, bright vintage-style with a young, tart mountain cheese or cheddar. Then, as both the wine and cheese age , shedding some of their racy vigor but taking on suave, nutty, secondary characteristics, they will marry well again. A brilliant example is serving very old vintage or tawny Ports with aged farmhouse cheeses, one of McCalman's favorite combinations.
Texture is yet another facet to consider. A rich, creamy, runny cheese will coat the palate more readily than a chalky or gritty cheese. This can be a bonus with young vintage ports still flaunting huge, rugged tannins. A lush cheese may help smooth them out. On the flip side, the syrupy viscosity of a Port is an elegant contrast to the crunchy tartaric acid crystals that form in some aged cheeses, for example a blue cheese or a gouda.
Beyond those relatively tangible basics, it gets harder to pin down. The rest of the magic comes from the aroma, and those multifaceted, fleeting flavor nuances (the alkylphenols) that are the expression of terroir in cheese. Finding a match that brings out and unites all the gorgeous complexities of both the wine and cheese is daunting (McCalman registers every success into a Palm Pilot to keep track), but the results can be stunning. These are the matches that McCalman gives his highest scores to, what he calls "the elusive plus-twos." On his personal rating scale, pairings go from negative-two to plus-two. A plus-two occurs when both the cheese and the wine are positively affected by the relationship on the tongue. A plus-one means that one or the other is positively affected. A zero means they neither detract from nor improve one another, and the negative side of the scale is simply the equation in reverse.
To get the most out of pairing Port and cheese, McCalman offered some tips on tasting methods. "Take a bite of cheese, chew it a little, and let it coat your palate," he said, "then sip some wine and let them meld into a cheese sauce in your mouth. You'll be able to see how and if the relationship works."
Whether it's a divine plus-two or a mediocre minus-one, the tasting is always the best part.