Charles de Gaulle famously asked, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of fromage?” Not only that, one might add, but how on earth can you find the right wine to bring out the best in each of them?
Most people tend to play it safe and reach for the classic reds, but for some cheeses, I’m inclined to go for a white. The richness and fat content of many cheeses is perfectly suited to more acidic, less tannic whites, and my top pick would be a nice crisp Chardonnay, ideally from Burgundy.
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The Chaource made a fine match with a chilled glass of Macon-Villages, a white Burgundy, and I was reminded of my bow-tied and aproned sommelier days. I would try to coax diners who had ordered cheese away from the port, tempting them instead with a little taste of Chablis — one of my favorite combinations.
If this is whetting your appetite, just bear in mind that Chaource can be a bit tricky to track down in stores. Brillat-Savarin would be a delicious alternative, a bit more buttery in flavor; or perhaps a tasty Camembert; or even the failsafe Brie. As a rule of thumb, the softer the cheese, the crisper the wine — to cut through the creaminess.
When you are having a hard cheese, a more full-bodied white wine will be appropriate. Something like extra-sharp Cheddar is a great match for the peachy mango flavors often associated with a Californian Viognier, whereas the creaminess in the semi-hard Gouda goes brilliantly with minerally driven and peachy dry Riesling. However, considering that Gouda is traditionally eaten at breakfast in the Netherlands, it won’t go amiss with an aged vintage Champagne, something with brioche like characteristics.
As for specific wines to try, I’ve suggested a few styles, most of which are on the medium to lighter side. Just remember: Go for crisp wines with minerality but enough weight to handle cheese’s tendency (for instance Sancerre over New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) to overwhelm the palate. Chardonnay is ideal; however, others like Viognier and even the rare Marsanne have proven worthy.
So next time you’re preparing that cheese board, pour a soupçon of white on the side. It could thoroughly change your perspective.
Top left: 2011 Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, Macon-Villages
A classic Chardonnay from the southern Burgundian region, with a slight appley richness in the mid-palate that gives this wine weight and makes it perfect for cheese pairing.
Around $20, widely available
Top right: 2012 Two Shepherds, Marsanne, Saralee’s Vineyard
Usually Marsanne is blended with Viognier and Rousanne; by itself, there is a remarkably rich mouthfeel, like honey, and elegant marzipan flavor.
$30, contact winery for availability: twoshepherdsvineyards.com
Center, top and bottom: Chaource cheese
Bottom left: 2012 Baker Lane, Viognier, Sonoma Coast, Estate Vineyard
Viognier in California tends to be overwhelming and flabby, but this one is as clean as they come, and quite floral as well. The vineyard is perfectly placed in a tiny cool-climate valley deep in Sonoma.
Contact winery for availability: www.bakerlanevineyards.com
Bottom right: 2011 Lioco, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
A crisp and direct Chardonnay with brilliant stone fruit flavors.
$20, contact winery for availability: www.liocowine.com
Top photo: Cheese trolley. Credit: Louis Villard