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Thoughts on Cheese & Wine
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Feature Article: Some thoughts on cheese and wine

For more on wine, go to the Wine Observor

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What a pair! They both exist in multitudinous varieties and yet seem to partner so naturally. They lie near the heart of western gastronomy, perhaps joining bread, already there.

Any study of cheese and wine must consider the similarities and differences in how each is approached separately and together as food products.

Having been farmstead cheesemakers and a wine professionals, the patterns of intersection between the two worlds go beyond the obvious conclusion that, yes, cheese and wine go well together. First, many basic production concepts including the importance of the agricultural aspects of the enterprise are similar between cheese and wine. Second, the appreciation of wine and of cheese involves similar aptitudes, desires, vocabulary, and evaluative techniques. Third, the concept of terroir is applicable and probably important to both. Finally, both wine and cheese belong to the same cultural sphere—gustatory enjoyment—and business sphere—hospitality, foodservice, restaurants—so that wine and cheese make sense together. The history and geography and wine and cheese appreciation also runs parallel.

Cheese (&Wine)

Cheesemaking involves the conversion of a single basic product—milk--into a variety of different products classified as cheese Cheese is made by the coagulation or precipitation of milk solids. Milk itself contains colloidally suspended, dissolved, and emulsified components consisting of whey proteins and casein, fat, lactose, minerals, and vitamins. In fact, these days component pricing of milk as a way to pay dairy farmers and practice milk marketing has become extremely important. Traditionally in North America, the best quality milk usually did not go to cheese production. “Cheese milk” was not of the same standard as “fluid milk.” This is one reason why farmstead production is so important—the cheesemaker is also the farmer, and can focus on quality milk production for cheese, especially on factors like butterfat content that will matter to the final cheese quality.

Milk is altered in the creamery by the addition of a small possible set of ingredients: rennet (either natural or synthetic), acid, starter culture (bacteria), and water. Usually—unless making a flavored cheese—that's all there is to it. Ensuring the maintenance of milk quality between the animal—buffalo, sheep, goat, or cow—to the creamery and then to the cheese vat is very important. This involves scrupulous attention to sanitation, filtration, use of proper vessels and containers (mostly stainless steel), and refrigeration. This list should sound familiar to most winemakers, though dairy sanitation standards are much stricter than winemaking sanitation standards.

The whole point is to get milk into the cheese vat or coagulation container as close to its original state as possible, and especially without any contamination by “bad” bacteria. By bad bacteria, I do not only mean bacteria that might harm humans, but usually much more importantly, those bacteria that will have a negative impact on, or destroy cheese quality. This includes most prominently the coliforms—which are markers of inadequate sanitation somewhere along the line between udder and vat. Though, too, even “good” lactic bacteria, if left for too long or at elevated temperatures, will produce undesired milk qualities, particularly enhanced acidity. Then there are the cryophilic bacteria that breed under cold conditions and produce “ropy milk”--you can imagine!

Here, too, the farmstead cheesemaker has the potential advantage of directly transferring the just received milk to a vat with many fewer steps and intermediaries than at the cheese factory many miles away.

At the creamery, milk is then most often pasteurized or pumped directly to a vat, where raw milk is heated for cheesemaking. In France, a lot of cheeses are made by weak rennet coagulation combined with indirect (bacterial) acid coagulation at room temperature—direct from the goat's udder to the cheesemkaing bucket! Famous cheeses like Sainte Maure and Valencay are made this way. Most cheeses, however, are made by bringing the milk to a determined starting temperature, adding bacterial culture, diluted rennet, and then waiting for an appropriate level of coagulation. Rennet acts on milk by altering the protein structure of casein in milk to form a gel. Well into the twentieth century no one fully understood the chemistry of how rennet worked, and it is still a topic of active research. Rennet action can vary substantially with the heat and acid properties of the milk.

In any even, rennetting the milk will ultimately—usually fairly quickly—produce a “curd” that can then be manipulated further to aid drainage of the whey and the production of what we would call cheese. The gel caused by rennet can be cut—usually with cheese knives (no, not the knives you use to serve cheese with, but harp-like paddles)--or it can be scooped gently and directly into waiting molds. Much French-style soft bodied cheese is produced by directly scooping, while more English and Swiss style cheesemaking involves cutting and heating.

In making a cut-curd cheese—like cheddar, for example—there may be several other stages involved. These can include: “cooking” the curd, “washing” the curd, “slabbing” the curd, and “cheddaring” the curd.

In pasta filata cheese (think mozzarella), acidification of curd slabs is important for a precise level of acidity development—followed by the manipulation of the curd at relatively high temperatures, and usually by soaking the curd in very hot water and then stretching it.

In large-scale cheese production, many of these steps are automated. In small-scale cheese production, they are mostly manual.

The resulting, molded cheese curd must then be drained, sometime bandaged, and then allowed to age, or—if it is a fresh cheese—stored under refrigeration.

For aged cheeses, the goal is flavor development—might one say extraction???--as well as chemical changes that occur with time. Again—sounds familiar to winemaking, no? What occurs with time and with some human effort, is a breakdown of proteins and/or fats, which forms flavor compounds. There is also bacterial growth, and with the natural rind cheeses, changes to rind composition and chemistry. Natural rind cheeses encourage the growth of organisms, particularly molds but also bacterium, that will affect the texture and flavor of the resulting cheese. This is also true of blue cheese, where blue cheese mold must be encouraged to grow inside the cheese itself.

It is up to the cheesemaker or affineur to now when the cheese is ready for market, or to advise customers on the flavor profile of a particular cheese at a particular age. Any raw-milk cheese sold in North America must be aged at least 60 days before sale.

In summary, in quality cheese production there are three major stages, each with its own important aims, all oriented towards flavor, balance, and consistency:

The first stage: Milk Production

  • Choice of milk type—goat, sheep, cow, and buffalo milk all have different flavor consequences, particularly due to different types of short-chain fatty acids

  • Dairy animal management and feed—pasture, grain, commercial feeds, etc.

  • Milking conditions and milk storage—sanitation is number one!

The second stage: Cheesemaking

  • Treatment of milk to maintain quality and prevent contamination

  • Choice of starters, coagulation techniques

  • Choice of curd handling

The Third Stage: Ageing and/or Affinage

  • Fresh cheese: no ageing

  • Sealed ageing: no natural rind—temperature control and cheese size important

  • Natural-rind ageing, affinage, encouragement of positive micro-organisims, control of negative micro-organisms, regular turning, temperature control, humidity control, etc.--a labor of love!

After this, the cheese is packaged (another topic) and presented to the public.

Now, cheese appreciation comes to the fore.

You can select from hundreds of different choices of cheese that will provide different flavors, textures, aromas, shapes, cooking properties, and pairings with other foods and drinks.

Cheese appreciation and its more professional aspects of cheese judging and sensory analysis involve visual inspection, olfactory impression, tasting for texture and for flavors, and finally judging the balance of all elements—always with respect for what kind of cheese or effect you desire.

A cheese tasting can involve a segmented series of stages, just like a wine tasting, though dealing with a solid food rather than a liquid has its obvious differences.

Affineur Jean d'Alos of Bordeaux describes, through a student is his appreciation class,

a multi-sensory process of tasting a cheese, starting from looking at the cheese, the color of the rind, the texture, considering whether those were appropriate for the type of cheese being tasted.  Next we rubbed a small amount of cheese between our fingers, feeling the texture and smelling the fragrant coming from the cheese heating up between the fingers.  Then each of us tore off a small piece, put it on our respective tongues and pressed it against the palate the mouth to aerate the cheese without biting into it, slowly letting the taste of the cheese disseminate throughout the mouth, tasting the flavor, the mouthfeel and the texture of the cheese in the mouth.  Then, finally, we were allowed to actually eat the cheese, chew, swallow, and all. 

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Terroir is a final concept that applies both to wine, and in interesting ways, also to some cheeses.

Terroir is a word that summarizes all of the local elements that go into distinguishing one local product from another: the climate, the soil, the particular weather that year, the particular flora & fauna, the nutrients, the micro climates, the geographical considerations, the variety of the main product producer, be in a merlot grape vine or a jersey cow or a laucaune sheep. Pasturage/browse conditions and terroir are obviously closely related.

Terroir is an explanation, and perhaps a justification, for the qualities and differences among wines that explain, for example, the 1855 classification of Bordeaux (primarily Medoc) wines, or the micro-geography of Burgundy viticulture. For cheese, it explains what makes a Sainte Maure different from a Valencay, despite the fact that they are made from the same milk, cheesemaking process, and basic ageing process (though in different shapes).

Terroir says, nay demands, local definition and a recognition of the value of local qualities—whether it be a Margaux wine or a Livarot cheese: the soil, the weather, the minerals in the soil, the humidity, the drainage, the geological history, etc. plus the type of production, the means of production, the methods employed. Beyond this, individual producers—vineyards or chateaux—also have their distinctive qualities, but always within the fundamental parameters of the terroir. The French have long since regulated such production into the great system of Appelation Controlee, which covers not just wine and cheese, but also fish sauce.

Terroir is like an old adage from the search for authenticity—it really surpasses any inkling of vintage variation in wine to express what is supposed to be a product so intimately tied up with its localized production factors that it exudes locality and quality at the same time, that is that the product that expresses the particularity of this locale represents quality.

The differences between wine and cheese production also draw thought:

Cheese and wine are both produced in batches, however the winemakers have one great chance every year—based on the grape harvest—to make their product work. The cheesemaker most likely endeavors year-round with each batch expressing a season, but also allowing for variation. Each cheesemaking episode—when it is handmade—allows for variation. And the seasonal fluctuations in milk composition do and must bear on cheese quality. Less butterfat, more protein, changing flavor elements, more or less minerals. In a way, cheese batches are like vintages.

What is expected of both the cheesemaker and the winemaker is consistency: that the product taste the same, and be good or great every time. This, for all, is hard to achieve.

Like wine, cheese in the developed world deserves to be broken down into two spheres: cheese and fine cheese, just like there is wine—plonk, perhaps or vin de table—and fine wine. The vast majority of cheese manufactured in the world is a bulk product, not meant to excite the finer senses or challenge one's palate. This is not “specialty cheese” in any sense.

Fine cheeses are produced in small batches where the origin of the milk supply is known and identifiable. These can also be called artisan, artisanal, specialty, or farmstead cheeses. The latter should really only apply to farmers who make their own milk and cheese, or perhaps small-scale cheesemaking from one farmer's milk supply, whether on the farm or not.

Appreciation of fine cheese is something refined. Cheese also brings new pleasure, enjoyment, and dimension to other foods, and can require a level of connoisseurship to buy, store, serve, and match properly. Knowing if you want to select a washed-rind, pressed cheese or a soft-bodied type with P. candidum or a fresh brined cheese will make all the difference to your wine party or your cheese course. Likewise, cheeses have very different cooking properties depending on how they are made and aged, and though some cheese cognoscenti turn their noses up at the though of cooking with specialty cheeses, we cannot concur.

As the above summary of cheese appreciation shows, the affinities between wine and cheese are numerous, the point being that the harmony between fine wine and fine cheese may actually go back to common factors of production and terroir in addition to the more obvious aspects of appreciation.

  • Both wine and cheese are made from a single substance: grape juice and milk, respectively (think of that taste combination--yuck!) that is then transformed, without adding a large number of additional ingredients or components, into a new and more sophisticated product. Both processes also involve microbial action that must be carefully studied and managed to achieve superior results.
  • Both wine and cheese can be made in bulk or in artisanal quantities, with varied results.

  • Both wine and cheese represent and express terroir in its classical sense, as used by the French.

  • The expert processing techniques of both winemaking and cheesemaking can produce—out of a single base substance—widely varied styles and types of end-product. The differences here are obvious—cheese is a solid, wine a liquid—however the flavor profile differences are equally wide.

  • In both cases, for the finest products, careful attention to the entire production process, but particularly with the agricultural elements, are paramount—viticulture and milk production.

In sum, wine and cheese blend together so well because they are both exquisitely complex creations of human and natural endeavor and their processes of creation are both quite similar.

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Wine Spectator magazine on cheese & wine:
 
Like wine, cheese is the product of a fermentation that creates something entirely different and infinitely more complex than the raw material. Like wine, cheese ages until it reaches a point of perfection, then goes downhill. Like wine, cheese comes in a wide range of styles, each with its own set of characteristics, and it tastes of terroir. France, Italy, Spain and other countries have appellations of origin for cheese, just as they do for wine. Farmstead cheese—made from the milk of the cheesemaker’s own animals—is comparable to estate-bottled wine made from the winemaker’s own grapes. Artisanal cheesemakers buy top-quality milk to handcraft their products, just as quality-oriented négociants use grapes bought from serious growers.

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