Centuries of Refinement: The Art of Wine and Cheese Matching

The middle ages were magical times.

Yes the average life expectancy may have only been 40 years of age, and every person’s survival required the hard work of a strong community, but it really was a time when people began to truly innovate.

Despite the modern view it was a dark and antiquated time with no iPhone, television or rocket launchers, communities in Europe, the Middle East and beyond began to build the society we have today through more active cross-border trade and purpose driven efforts to perfect their techniques, skills of craftsmanship.  Their work generated and garnered new concepts for wealth generation.

Medieval monasteries especially, were nerve centres of creativity.

As the population grew particularly in Europe and feudal societies were born, monasteries received gifts of land from the nobility and created systems of taxation with local farmers and peasants.

You may ask, ok but what was so magical about monks acquiring land and duties?

The answer is… ‘wine’ and ‘cheese’.

These were principle commodities the monks codified into items of value.

Scientists propose the oily, milky mouthfeel created by fats and lactic acids in cheese are broken into new flavour compounds by the astringency found in wine.

What started out as skills in self-sufficiency for the growing number of monks who maintained strict religious routines; in time, these skills became sources of great wealth.

The expertise of monks in various pursuits of farming, manufacturing, art and music developed over a number of centuries.

The products made and traded were also highly provincial in nature.

The wine, cheese and other produce made by each monastical abbey became essential to the life, culture and identities of their regional communities, and they continue to be so today.

In Burgundy for example, we can thank the Cistercian monks for cultivating grapes and producing elegant pinot noir wines, perfecting their dairy milk and creating the delectable Époisses cheese, discovering the minerality of Chablis and inventing the mild and creamy Soumaintrain.

These wine and cheese combinations are not something humans just stumbled across by chance.

They were diligently curated by monks who were actively honing their craft of viticulture, dairy farming, winemaking and cheesemaking, along with brewing, baking and apiary.

And why do we find the right cheese and wine pairings so magical?

Scientists propose the oily, milky mouthfeel created by fats and lactic acids in cheese are broken into new flavour compounds by the astringency found in wine.

The mildly bitter character created by the structure of acid, phenolics and tannin in wine can improve the taste sensations of the cheese, and the cheese compounds actively improve the taste sensations of the wine.

Professor Paul Breslin, who studies taste perception as a genetics and biology scientist at Rutgers University, says certain stimulus combinations interact with the taste buds and receptor cells in the mouth.

He suggests the evolutionary nature of our palates, saliva and taste receptors to identify nutritious foods as hunter-gatherers has created some of the most pleasurable flavour combinations we know today. In cultures around the world, people have paired flavour compounds in many different ways they learned from simple trial and error; finding what works and finding what doesn’t.

“When you eat sushi or sashimi, that ginger refreshes your mouth. The same goes for a pickle and a corned beef sandwich.

“The French use sorbet and wine as a palate cleanser, while in some parts of Africa and Asia they use tea,” says Breslin.

“Different gastronomies pair them in different ways.”

When I sit down with wine, cheese and condiments, these are some of the things I think about – the ages it has taken for people to perfect these moments.

It might sometimes feel indulgent, but the wine and cheese we enjoy today are the expressions of human skill and creativity developed over generations.

It’s for this reason I want to share with you some of my favourite wine and cheese combinations.

Marsanne and Picodon
Picodon is a goats cheese from the Northern Rhône dating back to the 14th century. It has a pungent smell and a firm rind, with a soft cream in the middle. It carries a beautiful balance of sour and sweet tones, with a hint of hazelnut which marries beautifully with a mature marsanne. The honey and nutty tones of an aged marsanne can work to balance out the goat flavours and complement the firm edge of the picodon.

A salad of leaves, a dressing of oil, vinegar and eschallots along with walnuts and picodon also works delightfully with marsanne.

Chardonnay and Brillat-Savarin
To choose just one cheese to pair with chardonnay is a very difficult task. One of the world’s most versatile wines, it works with so many flavours and textures. I very nearly leaned to an ash-coated goats cheese like Valençay and the Black Savarin my family makes for the Yarra Valley Dairy, however the Brillat-Savarin is something quite special. A decadent triple cream cow’s milk, it has a very soft rind, and an oozing centre of creaminess. A touch chalky, a little salty and and intensity of cream just makes this cheese work so well with chardonnay. Together you will find earthy, mineral and nutty flavours come to the fore, while the acid of the chardonnay works well to cut through the cream of the Brillat-Savarin. This is something to savour.

Rosé and White Savourine
There’s no denying how much I love goat milk cheeses and on this occasion I am indulging the art of more modern cheesemaking, inspired by the ancient techniques of the French. As a child of a dairy and cheese making family, we have tried and tested cheeses from all over the world. Inspired by Bucheron of the Loire Valley, the tangy flavours of the White Savourine are a joy to savour with the light spicy fruit of a rosé wine. Personally, I like to serve the White Savourine a few minutes out of the fridge, while the centre is still firm but not too cold.

Pinot Noir and Époisses
In homage to the artistry of the monastic order of Cistercian monks from Citeaux in Burgundy, it is hard to go past this classic and highly revered partnership of pinot noir and Époisses. Known as the king of cheeses, Époisses dates back to the sixteenth century. A red-orange, wash rind cheese made from cows milk, is has a strong musty stinky smell, but the soft middle is delicately salty, nutty, sweet and milky. Matured for five to six weeks, it is hand washed three times per week in water, salt and Marc de Bourgogne (grape spirit) to bring on the colour and pungency. For a cheese that was made for centuries and associated with the court of Napoleone, it was lost to cheese lovers during the first and second world wars. Thankfully, the people of the Époisses village had retained the recipe and revived production in the 1950s. Today, it is best enjoyed with a young pinot noir wine. The primal fruit of the pinot, touch of earthiness and balance of lively acid cuts into the intensity and cream of the Époisses.

Syrah and Fourme d’Ambert
I know there are people who say they don’t like blue cheese, but I am guessing they have never had this combination. One of France’s oldest cheeses, the production of Fourme d’Ambert is documented from the eighth century, however oral history suggested the cheese was known to be made and traded in Roman times. From the town of Ambert, in the Auvergne mountain ranges, the word Fourme relates to the cylindrical shape of the cheese. Smooth, mild, creamy, crumbly and potted with veins of blue mould, it is made from pasturised cow’s milk. Served with pear, candied figs and walnuts, Fourme d’Ambert is the perfect finish to any evening with a glass of spicy syrah with bright red fruit. Syrah from the Northern Rhône is a close neighbour to the Auvergne region and any of the blue cheeses of this region work with the spicy reds of the Rhône.