Photography: Victoria Pearson
Cheese of Course
Cheese aficionado Janet Fletcher offers delicious pairing tips for red wine.
When you read Janet Fletcher's beautiful and hunger-inducing book, Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying, you may realize that many, if not most, of her pairing suggestions involve white wines, rosès, sherries, and ports.
Does this indicate that pairing cheese with rich red wine is a challenge? "Not at all," says Fletcher. "You simply want to match intensity with intensity. With a Shafer wine such as Relentless® or Hillside Select,® its beauty is in its intensity and concentration, so the ideal pairing is with a cheese that has comparable intensity."
Older red wines are more delicate, more fragile, less vivid says Fletcher. "With these you want to dial back the intensity of the cheese; look for a cheese with a bit less age. Even so, the style of cheese remains much the same," she suggests. As an overall guideline, an aged, dry cheese is your best starting point.
Age equals flavor
"With age a cheese loses moisture; it becomes drier and more concentrated," says Fletcher.
In addition to losing moisture, over time enzymes break down proteins and fats in the cheese creating more aromatic complexity, also a key component in the perfect match-up.
Some of the cheeses that Fletcher recommends may be surprising. For example, one of her top selections with red wine is cheddar. Not the familiar orange bricks wrapped in plastic next to the hotdogs at your local mega grocery store.
"True cheddar is a revelation if all you've had is the supermarket variety," says Fletcher, who profiles cheeses in her San Francisco Chronicle weekly cheese column.
The element in red wine that can bedevil cheese pairing is tannin.
"When a wine has big, rough tannins, it can overwhelm a delicate cheese," says Fletcher. "Fortunately Stags Leap District wines are known for being soft and approachable."
Cheese to avoid
Even some aged cheeses don't work with dry red wine. Stay away from the super-aged Dutch Goudas, which have sweet, caramel notes that clash with many red wines.
Overall, Fletcher suggests avoiding blue cheeses, even those that are firmer and more crumbly. "The blue mold really wipes out the wine's fruit," she says.
For extra-hard cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, use a blunt knife to break off chunks rather than slicing it. With soft cheeses, Fletcher prefers a rustic French or Italian loaf over crackers; hard cheeses don't need bread at all.
And how about the rind?
And finally, the last word on the rind. Fletcher says that if the rind tastes good, eat it.
"There's nothing on a natural rind that's bad for you," she says, and there are no rules that dictate whether you should or shouldn't cut it away. If it's soft enough to cut through and enhances the taste of the cheese, then enjoy it.
Fletcher's Top Five Cheese Pairings with Red Wine
Aged Sheep cheese
The high butterfat content of sheep's milk yields cheeses of particularly complex flavor. Names to look for: Manchego, Roncal, or Zamorao from Spain, Pecorino, Italy, Abbay-De Bellock, France, Vermont Sheppard, U.S.
Vella Dry Jack
A superb red wine cheese; for extra flavor, look for wheels that are at least 12 months old. Unlike some older cheeses, this one doesn't get pungent. It's a classic cheese that is smooth, dry and nutty.
Put down the grater; this is a great table cheese on its own. Some cheese lovers consider it the finest in the world. As it ages elegant flavors emerge ― nuts, toast, and browned butter.
This California cow's milk cheese is crafted in 10- to 20-pound wheels that mature more quickly than a big Parmigiano-Reggiano. At three to six months old, it has the concentrated flavors that make it an excellent red wine partner.
A traditional Cheddar has a natural rind ― not a waxed exterior. Aged a year or more, Cheddar offers layered and lingering flavors and profound aromas that make it an outstanding partner for red wine.
Janet Fletcher is the author of two books on cheese, The Cheese Course and Cheese & Wine, sold in bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com. She writes a weekly cheese column for San Francisco Chronicle, available online at www.sfgate.com.