Pairings: A Taste of Place

Enjoy an artisanal cheese and a wine from the same locality, and you'll discover why agricultural products express the flavors of the land.


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A Taste of a Place

Enjoy an artisanal cheese and a wine from the same locality, and you'll discover why agricultural products express the flavors of the land.

First, take a bite of the cheese, Pt. Reyes Original Blue, which you've let sit until it is at perfect room temperature, about 70 degrees. Let its creamy tang blossom in your mouth and then take a sip of the cool Pt. Reyes Vineyard Blanc de Noir, made from grapes—75 percent Pinot Noir, 25 percent Chardonnay—grown little more than a stone's throw from the pasture where the cows that produce the milk for the cheese graze. Is that a hint of the sea, you wonder, as you swallow the wine, or just the cheese's salty savor? It is both. This is, for better or worse or naught, the taste of a place.

Both dairy and winery are located off Highway 1, above the salty marshes of Tomales Bay in Marin County, on the California coast south of Sonoma County. But it is more than mere geographic proximity that creates an affinity between this new cheese, introduced in December 2000, and the Pt. Reyes Vineyard sparkler. The 250 Holstein cows at the Robert Giacomini Dairy, which founded the cheese factory last year, enjoy an entirely local diet, with four months on spring pastures and the rest of the time with silage made from this land. The water here is the good, pure water of western Marin, with its delicate grassy flavors and suggestion of salt, qualities that express themselves in milk and grape alike. The cheese plant is a couple dozen feet from the milking barn, and the cheesemaking begins almost immediately after milking. Grapes are hauled a few hundred yards from vineyard to winery. Although neither currently is certified, both the vineyard and the dairy practice organic farming.

Terroir and Cheese
This was once the only way cheese was made, before pasteurization, refrigeration and rapid long-distance travel made it possible to safely transport milk great distances. The renowned cheeses of Europe—the Loire Valley's Crottin de Chavignol, Italy's Gorgonzola, Spain's Manchego and England's Cheddar, to name a few—developed their discrete regional flavors over decades and centuries, as cows grazed on what the land grew and breathed a region's pure air, with all of its native aromas and perfumes. The cheeses were shaped by local hands from generation to generation, and flavors and textures developed naturally. How could they not? Wines were of a place, too, because there was no alternative. Today, these cheeses and wines offer roadmaps of taste, timeworn pathways for cheesemakers, winemakers and consumers to follow. When Evan Jones, writing in The World of Cheese in 1976, declared that "there is a natural affinity between two products of the same district," it was this inevitable resonance to which he referred, the undeniable truth that any agricultural product, nurtured on a region's natural bounty, expresses the flavors of that land.

Jones was writing about European producers, but winemakers in the United States have reawakened to this fact and our best wines are increasingly expressions of place. Now, cheesemakers are following in their footsteps, turning up everywhere from the dairy hamlets of New England to the flatlands of Texas with cheeses that seek the style and expression that is unique to a particular environment.

In fact, in the last decade or so, the term "artisanal" has been used to describe a range of agricultural products from solar-dried French sea salt, traditional balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil to boutique wine, country ham and a range of both domestic and imported cheeses. Artisanal products generally are handcrafted, using natural—and increasingly, organic—ingredients and traditional techniques. Their quantity is usually limited. The term is an indication, though not a guarantee, of superior quality and regional character. Some artisanal cheeses also qualify as farmstead cheeses, a designation similar to "estate-wines" which indicates the cheese has been made exclusively with milk from the farm's own herd.

Pairing Wine and Cheese Successfully
The marriage of artisanal cheese and wine might be best illustrated in northwestern California. There are, of course, outstanding wines produced throughout the state and there are wonderful handcrafted cheeses in regions of California that have never seen a grapevine. But when it comes to the intersection of the two, to unique artisanal cheeses and the wines that flatter them, the north coast is a pioneer. Vella Cheese Company, established in 1931; Joe Matos Cheese Factory, founded in 1983 and Laura Chenel Chèvre, founded in 1982, have been making distinguished cheeses for years, nearly side by side with some of the country's most successful wines. The dairy industry has been successful here for over a century and a half. The artisanal cheese industry flourishes for the same reason the dairy industry does, because cows, goats and sheep thrive in the moderate climate and graze on young spring pastures. Happy animals produce richer milk that tastes better than animals that live in stressful conditions, such as the high temperatures and crowded conditions of the Central Valley. The mild climate further insures that cheeses have ideal aging conditions. Grapes grown in the same cool climate enjoy the long growing season that allows their flavors to develop slowly and their acids to remain bright, which in turn results in full-flavored wines with soft tannins and balanced acidity. A hallmark of a successful pairing is that both cheese and wine are equally and similarly intense. A blockbuster Cabernet Sauvignon from a hot climate, exploding with fruit and tannin, would eclipse the subtle flavors of, say, a perfectly ripened Mt. Tam cheese; yet a cool-climate Cab, with restrained fruit and soft tannins, makes a seductive match. In spite of the established success of the region's pioneers, the idea that cheese is as much an expression of place as wine is still somewhat new, something cheesemakers are still exploring.

"I think [regional expression] is a great goal, but I don't think we're really there yet," Sue Conley, cheesemaker and cofounder of Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station, explains. When farmers rely on imported feed amendments or when cheesemakers mix milk from several farmers, they introduce tastes that inevitably eclipse the flavors imparted by local pastures, water and air.

Yet Conley is modest. Her Cowgirl cheeses, made with organic milk from Straus Family Dairy in nearby Marshall, are extraordinarily well crafted and expressive. If this is the direction our cheesemakers are headed, life is only going to get better.

What does this mean to the consumer, to you, when you just want a couple of nice cheeses and a pleasant quaffer? Do you need to become a wine geek and a cheese geek? Not to worry. When you have the opportunity to enjoy a sublime match, the Pt. Reyes blue with its sparkling neighbor, for example, revel in it. At other times, consider climate if you have enough information to do so, and if you are stuck, remember that sparkling wine always works. The bubbles dance on the palate, cutting through the creamy residue of cheese with flair and style. Think of it as the Fred Astaire of wine. A dry sparkler is often the best choice when you want a single wine to serve with a disparate array of cheeses. Also, keep in mind that both wine and cheese are living things. Catching one or the other at its ideal moment is tricky, nearly as dependent on luck as knowledge or skill; catching both, together, is a joyous happenstance for which there are no guaranteed rules or tricks to insure success. But you can use these pairing guidelines to lead you to a few happy unions between some of America's best artisanal cheeses and the wines that love them, and hope that the ephemeral gods of taste are with you.

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