California Cheeses with California Chardonnays: Golden State Bridges

Conventional wisdom often calls for matching wine and cheese from the sameregion, such as Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc and the region’s equally famous goat cheese. This does not necessarily work for California’s most famous white, Chardonnay, and cheese that comes from the same place, say Sonoma. After all, europe has had a head start of several centuries. Not to worry. There is such a diversity of fine cheeses and wines from the Golden state that you can create a successful pairing easier than you might imagine.

“It’s really more about the style of the cheese and wine than the terroir,” says Starr Cornwall, cheese monger at Wine Pavilion in Lake Forest, Calif.

The traditional style of California Chardonnay, however, is not especially cheese friendly. One major problem is oak, especially new oak, used for fermenting and/or aging. Oak adds body, sweetness and vanilla, to name a few characteristics not always welcome with cheese. Oak can also mute what little refreshing quality Chardonnay has to begin with.

While food pairing possibilities for oaky Chardonnays are limited, the good news is that many fresher, leaner and crisper California Chardonnays are emerging. At last year’s California Artisan Cheese Festival, “We had several pairings with Chardonnay, some of which were fabulous,” says Lynne Devereux, a cheese educator and former coordinator of the March festival. “In the past, California Chardonnay was off the table. Now the styles have more natural acidity. They are also less oaked, or not oaked at all, and have less malolactic [fermentation, which turns the wine’s crisper malic acid into creamier lactic acid].”

Devereux also notes that traditional California Chardonnays are higher in alcohol, though we are seeing more lower-alcohol wines from cooler climates, such as Santa Barbara and the Sonoma Coast. “High alcohol burns out the sweet milk flavors in cheese,” she says.

To see for myself, I matched two different styles of California Chardonnay with six California cheeses. The traditional 2007 Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros (91, $32) is rich, creamy and full-bodied with spicy, toasty oak. It is higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than the unoaked 2007 Four Vines Naked Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County (87, $14), which has fresh citrus and green apple flavors to go along with its minerality.

Cornwall and Devereux cited Bellwether Farms San Andreas sheep’s milk cheese as a good candidate for the Rombauer because, said Devereux, “Sheep’s milk cheese is naturally oily and deliciously fatty, which can tame down the sweetness and bitterness of oak.” Indeed it did, creating the best match for this wine. However, the cheese and the Four Vines seemed to be traveling on separate tracks, never coming together but never clashing either.

Apples and cheddar have always been a winning combination. So it wasn’t surprising that the apple flavors in Four Vines worked well with Fiscalini Farms Bandaged Cheddar. The oak and spice of the Rombauer cancelled out the nuances that the cheese develops during 16 months of aging.

Triple cream cheeses need a wine that can cut through their mouth-coating quality. With the unctuous Marin French Cheese Company’s Triple-Cream Brie, the Four Vines didn’t really cleanse the palate. Instead, it allowed the cheese to gently wash over it, creating a pleasant, if not exciting, sensation. The sweetness in the Rombauer played a bit with the creamy cheese but ultimately this Chardonnay’s oak and heaviness did in the match.

The crispness and fruitiness of the Four Vines took on a Sauvignon Blanc-like quality that allowed it to coexist easily with Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog goat cheese. And while the butteriness of the Rombauer had a brief flirtation with the cheese’s creamy quality, in the end the cheese’s goat tanginess finished off the relationship.

Washed rind cheeses, such as the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, have a pungency that can wreak havoc on many wines. The Four Vines put up a good fight but it needed more acidity and fruit sweetness (like a German Riesling Spatlese). The bold flavors of the cheese and equally strong flavors in the Rombauer created a Mexican standoff.

But while some cheeses work with neither, others bring out qualities in both. point Reyes Original Blue isn’t as sharp or salty as many blue cheeses, which, along with its creaminess, made it work surprisingly well with the Four Vines. Rombauer’s sweetness and oak spiciness created some interesting flavors with the Point Reyes.

It’s clear that unoaked California Chardonnay (as with unoaked wines in general) is a more versatile companion of cheese (indeed, most foods). Nonetheless, if you love oaky Chardonnays, you can still enjoy them with mild sheep’s milk cheeses and equally mild and creamy blue cheeses. And maybe some California cheeses none of us have heard about yet.

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