French wine and cheese go together like milk and honey or bread and butter. It’s a classic, mouthwatering combination that when done right, can amaze your guest and leave them with an unforgettable tasting experience. But how did it start and why is this pairing so popular?
A bit of science
In cuisines all around the world, cooks love to pair astringents with fats (think sushi and pickled ginger or wine and cheese) but until recently, no one had an idea why does it happen from a scientific point of view.
An experimental psychologist from Rutgers University and Monell Chemical Senses Center, Paul Breslin, decided to search for an answer, and he has found it: it’s all about the mouthfeel.
As fat is oily and lubricates the mouth, the astringents, like tannins in wine, make it feel dry and rough.
Breslin’s conclusion was that “astringents reduce the lubricants in the mouth during a fatty meal and restore balance”.
The History of Cheese
We don’t know the exact origins of cheese, but the legend says that some herdsman just accidentally left the milk out in the sun in a leather sack. After he had come back, he saw the result and had decided to check it out.
The reason why the milk turns into cheese is the chemical reaction with the rennet – the enzyme originally found in the lining of calves’ stomach.
The History of French Wine
Celts were cultivating the grape vines in Gaul. There were examples of grape pips as old as 12,000 years old found all around France. French were trading with British people as England was importing their wines.
There’s an old saying “Buy with bread, sell with cheese” (“Buy on bread, sell on cheese”), dated in the late XX century. Others go like “Buy on apples, sell on cheese”. There are different explanations of the meaning. One is that as cheese or bread disguises the taste of the wine, it’s easier to sell a bad one. The other one says that if the wine goes well with a sweet food, like an apple, it would probably taste great with cheese too.
In Provence you will find delicate rose wines, Alsatia brings crisp whites, and Bordeaux is famous of their rich, dark, red ones.
There’s a distinctive difference in flavours of cheeses and wines as they mature. The younger the cheese, the higher the water content and a creamy and delicate texture. As the water evaporates with age, it’s leaving fat and protein, resulting in rich and savoury cheese.
A Bit of Etiquette
The taste of cheese and a flavour of wine are the opposition, one being oily fat, and the second astringent. Just like with their flavours, the etiquette is quite different when it comes to cheese and wine.
First, you shouldn’t pour the wine yourself (especially when you’re a woman), but when the cheese plate comes to you, you should take three or four wedges of cheese and put them on your plate.
Both the cheese and the red wine should be left to breathe and served at an ambient temperature. The reason is that when wine and cheese are exposed to oxygen, they mellow out, breathe, allowing the flavours to blossom (in the case of wine, it’s called s’épanouir).
It’s the tradition for French to sip a glass of red wine with a meal (never on its own). Quite often the plate of cheese will be served after the food, before the dinner.
Cheese and Wine Pairing
The safe bet, the truth known for centuries is that the cheese and wine from the same region go well together as they have “grown up” together, like the French goat cheese from the Loire and the Loire Sancerre wine. But also the stronger the cheese’s flavour, the stronger could be the wine. As the opposites attract, the salty cheeses work well with sweet wines, creating a well-balanced combination.
The relationship between French wine and cheese started centuries ago, maybe it was started by British sailors who used the cheese as a snack and from there came to our houses and finally to the restaurants. We don’t know, but we can be sure that’s a heavenly combination.