How to match red wine and fresh summer cheeses is a bigger challenge than its sure partner Sauvignon Blanc. A classic pairing that many think they are perfectly harmonious and who needs anything else?
But this idea got me thinking: During our travel to France last year, we saw first hand the classic pairing of fresh goat cheese and wine out of France’s Loire Valley, where the cool temperatures keep the Sauvignon Blanc brisk and lively with green, grassy notes–excellent for matching the region’s famed goat cheeses. But once you move downstream from the Sauvignon grapevines, strongholds of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, to the region right around Tours, and the red varieties take over. Many are made from Cabernet Franc (blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Bordeaux style. It has resemblance to the white in its acidity, lean fruit, and herbal notes. And, if you’re playing “what grows together goes together,” then Cabernet Franc has every reason to go as well with the local cheeses as does its white counterpart.
However, not all Cabernet Francs are created equal. From the Loire, the grape has spread all over the world, most notably into Bordeaux, where it’s used in conjunction with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make tannic, long-lived wines, and also in California, where the warmer, sunnier climate typically produces rich, dark cabs–neither terrific with delicate young cheeses.
Even the Loire makes a wide range of Cabernet Francs that, with some chilling and a blindfold could pass as white. At the other end of the spectrum is tannic, cellar-worthy bottling that would flatten almost any cheese. In general, wines sporting the most general appellations–Saumur, Touraine, and Anjou–on their labels are the lightest ones. Wines from sub regions such as Bourgeuil, Chinon, and Champigny tend to be richer, although most are still light enough to let the grassy flavors of a good goat cheese shine through. (Higher prices tend to indicate which the heavy hitters are better left to the cellar or to a steak.)
Now, after reading all this I am pulling out a gorgeous, a young goat’s milk cheese with a cashmere-soft, grey-mottled rind. You can now ask me what wine we should drink with it. Of course I would say “A red,” “Why would you have anything else? It’s like meat and potatoes, or stir-fry and rice.”
Later, over a snow-white slice of Humboldt Fog and a Chignon, I begin to see how wonderful this match is. The slight tannins in the wine seem to make the cheese feel creamier; red fruit flavors play up the sweetness of the milk. It seems more fully realized than any match with white wine.
Then I go for the Selles. It’s gorgeous, dense, and as sticky as peanut butter, with an earthy, grassy funk. This time the red pulls out that earthy character while the cheese seems to make the wine feel brighter and fresher. It’s kinetic and delicious. Just for good measure, I cut into a small button of Palhais, a superfresh, salty-sweet goat cheese from Portugal. The salt makes the acid in the wine dance, while the sweet milk plays up its fruit. It rocks with red wine.
I’ve basically found two kinds of cheese that go really well with red: Spanish cheese and goat cheese. It’s that vegetal acidity, something about the fight between the wine’s acidity and that of the cheese that’s really fun. One always wins, coming through with a crisp, cutting note, but the other one doesn’t taste tart at all. On the contrary: when the wine wins, the cheese never tastes creamier; when the cheese wins, a lean, vegetal wine like Cabernet Franc suddenly seems juicy. Why would you do anything else?