Wine and cheese are a popular pairing (there was even a national Wine and Cheese Day last month), but pairings like this can be a tricky business. Sometimes the cheese overwhelms the wine and sometimes it is the other way around. What you really want is a combination that makes both the wine and the cheese taste better. It is not an easy thing to do.
A Match Not Made in Heaven?
I remember a student tasting a few years ago that went spectacularly wrong. We were tasting through some wines from the Beaujolais region of France starting with a fresh Nouveau, then a nice Beaujolais Villages, and working up to a couple of the Cru Beaujolais wines. The point was to understand how very different the wines from a particular region can be. It is an interesting project that you might want to try yourself in November when the fresh Nouveau vintage is released.
The problem was that a couple of students brought along some cheeses that their parents suggested would go nicely with wine in general. I don’t remember what the cheeses were, but when the students tasted them along with the Nouveau — which can sometimes be a bit metallic, if you know what I mean — well, it was a disaster. I think the accidental lesson the students took away was that they never wanted to taste wine and cheese together again. Yuck!
Rogue Creamery Cheeses
Rogue Creamery is known for its award-winning blue cheeses. How would the different varieties pair with the different wines? Our sample box included pairing suggestions by Cheese Emissary and Certified Sommelier Marguerite Merritt. Here is a list of the cheeses we tasted along with notes from the maker:
- Bluehorn Blue: After extended cave-aging, each wheel is soaked in red wine made from organic, biodynamic Syrah grapes from Southern Oregon. The wine’s bright berry/plum notes enhance the fruity flavors naturally found in the cheese; soaking lends a distinctive reddish-purple blush to the rind.
- Rogue’s Mary Cheddar: Organic rosemary leaves go into the vat during the cheddar cheesemaking process to create this delightful, herbaceous cheese with woodsy, lemon-pine flavors.
- Oregon Blue: Rogue’s signature blue cheese has a rich, creamy texture and a savory-sweet finish.
- Smokey Blue: This American original is cold-smoked for many hours over Oregon hazelnut shells, which infuses the cheese with unique aromas of barrel-aged vanilla, bread pudding, and candied bacon. You’ll taste spicy-sweet flavors of honey, apple, and nectarine, plus a mild “blue” finish.
- Rogue River Blue: Fudgy and rich with hints of pear brandy, vanilla, toffee, truffle, and fig, this aged blue cheese is made seasonally each fall and wrapped in Syrah grape leaves that are soaked in pear spirits.
El Dorada AVA Wines
We were not very familiar with the wines from the El Dorado AVA. It is one of the many California regions that get less attention than they probably deserve simply because of the focus on Napa and Sonoma counties. But a lot is going on in this region, which is located more or less an hour east of Sacramento and an hour west of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Foothills.
The vineyards benefit from higher elevation with many located between 1000 and 3500 feet. Mountain vineyards often produce elegant wines with higher acidity, which is what I was especially looking for in this case. That brightness, I figured, would play nicely with the creamy, tangy saltiness of the Rogue Creamery cheeses. Here is a list of the wines I picked for the wine plus cheese experiment, following the Rogue somm’s recommendations as well as I could.
- Edio Vineyards estate-grown Albarino El Dorado AVA 2022. Suggested pairings: Oregon Blue or Smokey Blue
- Starfield Vineyards “Hope Rising” El Dorado white Rhone blend 2022. Suggested pairings: Mary’s Rogue Cheddar or Oregon Blue
- Lava Cap Cabernet Franc El Dorado 2020. Suggested pairings: Bluehorn Blue or Rogue’s Mary Cheddar or Smokey Blue
- Miraflores Winery Estate Syrah El Dorado 2019. Suggested pairings: Bluehorn Blue Rogue River Blue
- Chateau Rieussec “Carmes de Rieussec” Sauternes 2005. Suggested pairing: Rogue River Blue.
The El Dorado AVA winemakers don’t limit themselves to one or two “signature varieties,” which made this experiment a bit more fun. The winery association website lists 44 red wine grape varieties and 29 white varieties. That is a lot of choice! That said, I admit that I cheated a bit with a final wine. I couldn’t resist grabbing a Sauternes from the cellar to pair with the Rogue River Blue. It is a classic combination.
Sue and I were joined by “research assistants” Bonnie, Richard, Chloe, and Joel. We tasted casually (no OIV protocols were followed!) and tried to determine our (1) favorite cheese, (2) favorite wine, and (3) favorite pairing.
How did the experiment go? We were all happily surprised by how interesting and delicious the experience was. We had high expectations, but the reality was even better than we imagined.
Each Rogue Creamery cheese was distinct, but without going to any “jump the shark” extremes. Sue was especially impressed by the subtle herbiness of Mary’s Cheddar and the gentle smoke of the Smokey Blue.
Of course, the El Dorado AVA wines were all different, but there were common threads of bright acidity, which you expect from mountain wines, and great balance. The result, when the wines and cheese were tasted together was a real festival of flavor. The wines generally made the cheeses even more interesting and the cheeses elevated the wines, too. It was just what you want from a pairing. Fun, delicious, thought-provoking.
Joel was particularly fascinated by the combination of the Starfield Vineyards white Rhone blend and the Rogue’s Mary Cheddar. He liked the wine well enough on its own, but he liked it even more when taken with the cheese. The Bluehorn Blue, which had been soaked in Syrah, came alive with the Miraflores Estate Syrah. The Lava Cap Cabernet Franc was drew praise from Richard and Chloe for its ability to pair with the cheeses.
Sue thought the classic Oregon Blue was the most versatile, pairing well with several of the wines. The next day, she used the Oregon Blue to top steamed green beans from the garden — another excellent pairing!
I enjoyed the whole experience and especially perhaps the pairings with the Edio Vineyards Albarino and the Cabernet Franc. But I admit my very favorite was the classic pairing of the Rogue River Blue and the Chateau Rieussec Sauternes.
Wine and cheese? It is hard to generalize because there are so many possible combinations. But this time we nailed it. A great way to celebrate national wine and cheese day!